Ahna Brutlag, DVM, MS, DABT, DABVT & Renee Schmid, DVM
During the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, it is easy to let your guard down when it comes to preventing toxic exposures to your pet. While the holidays bring more challenges to the already difficult winter months, we cannot forget about outdoor toxin concerns frequently seen this time of year. Below is a list of holiday-related decorations, plants and food items that the veterinarians at Pet Poison Helpline recommend keeping away from pets.
Holiday Ornaments and decorations:
When decorating for the season, consider your pets. Holiday decorations such as old-fashioned bubble lights may contain poisonous chemicals. If a pet chews on them, the liquid inside could be dangerous to their health. Methylene chloride, the chemical in older bubble lights, can result in depression, aspiration pneumonia, and irritation to the eyes, skin and gastrointestinal tract. Glass ornaments that shine and shimmer are often an enticing toy for your pet. However, if they were to bite in to, or break one during play, the small glass pieces can lead to lacerations to the skin and mouth, as well as damage to the esophagus and gastrointestinal tract. Homemade dough ornaments pose a risk for causing elevated sodium levels that may lead to severe neurologic abnormalities. If any of these types of tree decorations are being used for your tree, it is recommended to keep them towards the upper portion of the tree, where they are less likely to be accessed by your pet. Many animals develop electrical burns in their mouth from chewing on strands of lights, particularly cats and puppies. It is ideal to minimize dangling light strands to make them less appealing to pets.
Another holiday ornament to avoid is tinsel. If you own a cat, toss the tinsel! What looks like a shiny toy to your cat can prove deadly if ingested. While tinsel itself is not “poisonous,” it can result in a linear foreign body when eaten. A linear foreign body occurs when your pet swallows something “stringy” (like ribbon, yarn, tinsel, etc.), which wraps around the base of the tongue or anchors itself in the stomach, rendering it unable to pass through the intestines. As the intestines contract and move, this string or linear foreign body can slowly saw through the tissue, resulting in severe, potentially life threatening damage to your pet’s intestinal tract. Ultimately, pets run the risk of severe injury to, or rupture of, their intestines and treatment requires costly abdominal surgery. Save your holiday bonus for yourself instead of your pet’s surgery, and keep tinsel, ribbon, yarn, thread, fabric, etc. out of reach!
Filling your house with the smell of nutmeg or pine for the holidays may seem inviting—but if you’re partial to heating your scented oils in a simmer pot, know that they can cause serious harm to your cat; even a few licks can result in severe chemical burns in the mouth, fever, difficulty breathing, and tremors. Dogs aren’t as sensitive, but it’s still better to be safe than sorry—so scent your home with a non-toxic candle kept safely out of kitty’s reach. Dry potpourri may also cause chemical burns in the mouth, and also potential foreign bodies and gastrointestinal upset depending on the size of animal and amount ingested. While candles are often scented with oils, the largest concern with ingestion is a foreign body and potential obstruction. In addition to an upset stomach, surgical removal of the candle may be necessary in severe cases.
Though they have a bad rap, poinsettia plants are only mildly toxic. Far more worrisome are holiday bouquets containing lilies (Lilium spp), holly, or mistletoe. Even bouquets brought into the house by holiday guests should be thoroughly inspected, as lilies are one of the most commonly used. Just one or two bites from a lily can result in kidney failure in cats – even the pollen and water that the plant is in are thought to be poisonous! When in doubt, don’t let these bouquets in a cat-loving household!
Other yuletide plants such as holly berries and mistletoe can also be toxic to pets. When Christmas or English holly is ingested, it can result in severe gastrointestinal upset thanks to the spiny leaves and the potentially toxic substances (including saponins, methylxanthines, and cyanogens). If ingested, most pets smack their lips, drool, and head shake excessively due to the mechanical injury from the spiny leaves. As for mistletoe, most of us hang it high enough so it’s out of reach of our pets – nevertheless, it can also be toxic if ingested. Thankfully, American mistletoe is less toxic than the European varieties. Mild signs of gastrointestinal irritation are seen, although if ingested in large amounts, collapse, hypotension (low blood pressure), ataxia (difficulty walking), seizures and death have also been reported.
Recently, florists have started to use Japanese Yew (Taxus spp.) to make wreaths – all parts of this evergreen except for the flesh of the red aril are very poisonous, as they contain taxines, a cardiotoxin. If ingested, this plant can result in dizziness, an abnormal heart rate (initially elevated, then slowed), hypotension, dilated pupils, coma, and death. As horses are very susceptible to yew poisoning, make sure not to have this around the barn or pasture!
Most people know not to give alcoholic drinks to their pets; however, alcohol poisoning in pets is more common than you think. This is because alcohol can be found in surprising places! Rum-soaked fruitcake, or unbaked dough that contains yeast, result in alcohol poisoning and other problems. Rising dough will expand in the warm, moist environment of the stomach and can result in a bloat, which can then progress to a GDV or gastric-dilitation with volvulus (twisted stomach). Signs of this include vomiting, non-productive retching, distended stomach, an elevated heart rate, and weakness or collapse. Secondly, alcohol from the fermenting yeast is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream and affects pets quickly. Ingestion of alcohol can cause dangerous drops in blood sugar, blood pressure, and body temperature. Intoxicated animals can experience seizures and respiratory failure.
With the holiday season comes a delightful variety of baked goods, chocolate confections and other rich, fattening foods. However, it is not wise, and in some cases, quite dangerous, to share these treats with your pets. Keep your pet on his or her regular diet over the holidays and do not let family and friends sneak in treats. Foods that can present problems include:
Ice melts are commonly used around entryways and sidewalks and the containers that are filled with these products are often left within a pet’s reach. There are numerous formulations available, many of which contain salt (sodium chloride), and small exposures typically lead to stomach upset, and dermal and paw pad irritation. Larger ingestion's may quickly cause salt poisoning which can result in a rapid onset of vomiting, excessive thirst and seizures. If your pet has consumed any amount of ice melt, it is important to call for help.
When it comes to the holidays, the best thing a pet owner can do is to become educated on common indoor and outdoor household toxins and pet-proof your environment accordingly. If you think your pet has been poisoned, contact your veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline at 800-213-6680, with any questions or concerns.
A passing comment led to a program that is benefiting students and community members alike in Ottumwa, Iowa.
Jen Chesnut teaches science at Ottumwa High School and would often bring her Goldendoodle dog, Gus, to school with her on teacher work days. One day a school administrator remarked that Gus was so well-behaved that he should come along to school all the time.
The idea took hold, and Jen began looking into options to train and certify Gus as a therapy dog. Therapy dogs are used to provide emotional and physical support in a number of settings, including schools, hospitals, and nursing homes.
Gus began the training program when he was four years old with the goal of passing a certification test through the Therapy Dogs International organization.
“He was already a well-behaved dog,” said Jen. “When we decided to move ahead with training him as a therapy dog, we went to an advanced obedience class and a therapy dog preparation class in Des Moines.”
Special training for therapy dogs focuses on a number of skills beyond basic obedience, including making sure the animal can ignore other dogs, will not be too social with people, will be comfortable with equipment in schools, libraries and other facilities, and learning how to approach people who may be in wheelchairs or using crutches or walkers.
After about six months of focused training, Gus passed the therapy certification test on his first try. In 2016 the Ottumwa Board of Education approved a board policy on therapy dogs, allowing Jen and Gus to fill that role. She began bringing him to her classroom for a few hours a day, a few days each week.
Shortly after Gus completed his training, Jen also got a new puppy. Piper is a Shepadoodle who began obedience and therapy dog training at six months old.
“We weren’t able to fit the Des Moines classes into our schedule, so I trained Piper at home and around town,” said Jen. “We worked a lot in the aisles of Tractor Supply to get used to being around people and maneuvering around equipment, and we practiced in the lobby of Pipestone Vet Clinic to be able to ignore other dogs and pets.”
Piper was able to take the therapy dog certification test after she turned one year old, and also passed on her first try. She was the youngest dog to receive certification that day, said Jen.
Gus and Piper now share duties at Ottumwa High School.
“I take one of the dogs to school with me most days, unless we are planning laboratory work in science class that would present a safety issue,” she said. “They spend most of the time in my classroom and are available for students to sit with them during independent study time.”
Some students practice giving presentations to the dogs, and other students with test anxiety can spend time with the dogs to relax and help them focus. Both dogs have become important members of the school family, with Gus’ photo even appearing on the faculty page of last year’s yearbook!
“There are also times when the school social worker will bring students who are stressing out or having a difficult time to spend time with the dog to help them regroup,” she said.
Both dogs play roles in other community programs. Jen takes Piper to visit the behavioral health unit of a local hospital once a week. She walks through the ward to visit patients in their rooms. Gus has been visiting the local public library for about two years for program where children can read to him.
“For many young students, reading aloud in class is stressful. They can practice reading aloud to Gus without the stress and have more fun,” said Jen. “I’ve heard from some parents that some students have started reading to their pets at home, too.”
Gus and Piper visit Pipestone Vet Services in Ottumwa regularly for yearly wellness checkups, vaccinations and prevention programs. In addition, a veterinarian must sign a certificate each year to verify that therapy dogs are healthy for interaction with students, patients and others during their activities.
Dr. Lori Hickie, veterinarian at the Pipestone Veterinary Clinic in Ottumwa has been impressed with Gus, Piper and other therapy dogs, as well as with owners like Jen.
“It is phenomenal to see how interactions with the therapy dogs can have such a positive impact. The dogs just seem to have a sixth sense to be able to provide whatever is needed to help students read, study or focus better,” said Dr. Hickie. “It also takes a very astute and mindful pet owner to train and care for therapy dogs.”
Congratulations! You just brought a new furry bundle of joy into your family! Here is a quick checklist of things to follow to keep your new puppy healthy:
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