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Friday, December 14, 2012

Deck the halls away from little paws

With the warm weather we've been having, it's hard to believe that holiday mania is here. For many, that includes rearranging our furniture and homes to make room for Christmas trees and other holiday decorations while making arrangements for family and friends to visit.

The holiday season is the most common time of year for "my pet just ate..." questions and patient visits to my office.

It is hard to blame our pets for ingesting something they shouldn't, because the season brings into the home new things, visitors and more opportunities to investigate and, maybe, even sample what is left unattended.

Here is a brief overview of some common holiday hazards I have encountered over the years. For specific concerns about a possible poison ingestion by your pet, please call your veterinarian or poison control. (Human poison control may help for free, or the ASPCA pet hotline will give detailed information for a fee.)

Most poisons are ingested by eat-first-ask-questions-later canine companions. With the exception of knocking them over with a tail (thanks, Tonka), dogs typically ignore plants, but cats love to dig in, knock over and nibble on new plants brought into the house.

Holiday plants such as mistletoe, holly and poinsettias are common new "toys" for cats to try out. Fortunately, the toxic nature of these plants is now known to be minimal. Most issues are GI upset (vomiting and diarrhea) or some mouth sores. The one holiday plant that is a little more serious and can cause some kidney issues are the lily plants. Closely monitor your cats to limit their exposure to any new plants, and call your veterinarian with any concerns.

As furniture is moved to accommodate trees and holiday decorations, watch out for anything that may have been "lost" under or behind furniture. Pets love to play with anything new, and many items can be dangerous if ingested. Pay close attention to closets and basements where decorations have been stored; dangerous items can be uncovered or accidentally dropped and picked up by inquisitive four-legged friends.

Especially of concern is rat poison, which has an alluring smell and taste that both dogs and cats will readily eat. It can be fatal even in small doses. Make note which product was involved to help your veterinarian determine the best treatment.

The tree and its decorations also need to be monitored, and limit unsupervised access by pets. Place the tree in a stable stand and secure the tree to a wall or window. Many trees have been felled by a overly playful, klutzy Labrador or by a climbing indoor cat.

The decorations themselves are highly enticing. Ball-shaped glass ornaments often look like toys. They can be broken and injure your pet if knocked down. Be very careful if using tinsel or string decorations, because cats will often play with and ingest them. It is common for this to cause a GI obstruction requiring surgery to remove.

Protect and cover the electrical cords to prevent young animals from chewing them, which can start a fire or electrocute them. If ingested, Christmas tree needles and the water in the stand, which might harbor bacteria, viruses or preservatives, also can make pets sick.

It is widely known by most people that chocolate is not for pets. Chocolate contains both caffeine and theobromine, which can both cause adverse effects. Milk chocolate ingestion is by far the most common, and, fortunately, the least toxic. Signs are vomiting or diarrhea. If a large amount is ingested or if small amounts of dark or baking chocolate are eaten, more serious signs of hyperactivity or tremors can be seen or potentially life threatening heart arrhythmias can occur. Your vet or poison control can help determine if a dangerous amount was eaten.

A new but rapidly more-common poison is the artificial sweetener xylitol found in many gums and some candies. Dogs love the sweet taste but are highly sensitive to its effects, which can cause dangerously low blood sugar and lead to acute liver damage. If xylitol-containing treats are scarfed up by your dog, a veterinarian visit is recommended.

The accidental ingestion of human medications is the most common call to poison hotlines. With the arrival of guests, many of whom likely are taking some medications, the exposure risk to new pills is greatly increased for pets. Please notify visitors who take prescriptions or over-the-counter medications, to be careful with pills and to notify you if any pills were dropped or are missing.

And watch out for smokers. While not common for adult pets, puppies and kittens may be curious and ingest a dangerous dose of nicotine, which can result in agitation or seizures. (Another reason to quit).

One last but incredibly important area to pay attention to is the holiday feast. I can promise you it is common for larger dogs to reach the counter and have that holiday turkey or ham on the ground or in their stomach if food is left unattended. Unsecured trash containing food wrappings and leftover bones are very enticing and dangerous if ingested.

And while many will be in denial that their cats jump on the counter (they all do), most guests likely do not want cat hair in their dinner servings. So take a few extra precautions to keep your pets safe this holiday season, and do not forget to include your dog and cat family members in all the fun.

Dr. Brian Weitzman practices veterinary medicine at Smith Mountain Lake Animal Hosptial. He can be reachedat 297-9188 or smlahospital@aol.com