Top Ten Christmas pet hazards

As the Christmas countdown gathers pace, thoughts turn to family gatherings, festive food and cosy afternoons in front of a warm fire. However, sometimes life doesn’t go according to plan…..

Emergency calls to vets often increase over the festive period. With a tray of mince pies on the table, tinsel draped over the tree and the kids making salt dough decorations in the  living room, there is no shortage of mischief the four-legged family members can get up to.

So here is our top ten list of Christmas pet hazards to look out for.

1. Christmas tree temptation

Christmas trees present a big temptation to pets, especially those of the feline variety. What’s not to like about a new kitty climbing frame, complete with sparkly entertainment? But it is not just the hazards associated with tree climbing – pine needles can cause mouth irritation, and gastrointestinal signs, or even gut perforation. Regularly clearing up dropped needles and keeping the tree well-watered will help to keep the house as needle free as possible.

No tree is complete without decorations…

2. Salt dough

When it comes to decorations, what is better than those that are lovingly home made by the kids? Salt dough is popular – easy to make from store cupboard ingredients, cheap and with endless possibilities for modelling into festive designs.

However, salt dough is not so great for dogs. With its high salt (sodium chloride) content, the ingestion of salt dough can result in a condition called salt toxicosis, which can be fatal. Salt increases plasma osmolality, drawing water out of cells and resulting in cellular dehydration. Clinical signs include vomiting and diarrhoea, muscle tremors and seizures. Salt ingestion may also result in renal failure. Treatment is supportive, including the cautious use of intravenous fluids, and may need to be continued for several days.

3. Tinsel

Love it or hate it, tinsel is a feature of many festive households. While not in itself toxic, if eaten there is a risk of intestinal blockage, with prompt surgical intervention required. Cats in particular also like to chew on ribbon and other packing tape, with a risk of linear foreign body if swallowed.

And then there’s the festive food…

4. Mince pies

Mince pies are top of the toxic list when it comes to pets, and the same goes for Christmas cake and Christmas pudding, or anything else containing raisins, sultanas or grapes for that matter. The mechanism behind the toxicity is unknown, but in some dogs, grapes or their dried products can cause renal failure.

There is a wide variation in toxic effects, with some dogs able to eat a whole bunch of grapes with no ill effect, while a small handful of raisins could prove fatal to others. The difficulty is that there is no way of predicting which dogs are susceptible and which are not, meaning that all cases require immediate treatment.

5. Chocolate

Reports of chocolate poisoning increase at certain times of year with Christmas and Easter typically peak season. Toxic effects are due to the theobromine content of chocolate – dark chocolate has the highest theobromine content and so carries the greatest risk of toxicity, while white chocolate, at the other end of the spectrum, contains little or no theobromine.

6. Macadamia nuts

Macadamia nuts are not dog-friendly. Depending on how many are eaten, clinical signs include lethargy, hyperthermia (raised body temperature), vomiting, abdominal pain and muscle tremors. Evidence suggests it is just dogs that are affected, and although the mechanism behind the toxicity is unknown, with appropriate supportive treatment the outlook is good.

7. Candy canes

Candy canes might look perfect hanging on the tree, but it is worth checking that they do not contain xylitol, an artificial sweetener. Xylitol is found in all manner of foods, as manufacturer’s look to meet the demand for sugar-free options. Xylitol stimulates a rapid release of insulin, leading to a rapid and life-threatening hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) in dogs. This can happen in as little as ten to fifteen minutes after ingestion. In addition it may cause acute liver failure via an unknown mechanism.

8. Alcohol

Alcohol poisoning in pets is more common than you might think. Not only may pets help themselves from an unsupervised glass – watch out for cats and cream-based tipples here – alcohol is also found in other places including some desserts and even bread dough. Ingestion of alcohol can cause CNS depression and low blood sugar, and can even be fatal. However with prompt supportive treatment, most pets will recover.

9. Leftovers

Stuck with what to do with he left-overs? While the occasional morsel is fine in moderation for most pets, be wary of the four-legged vacuum who cleans up everything in their path. Cooked bones are a particular hazard as these can splinter.

And if food lasts long enough….ingestion of mouldy food can lead to tremorgenic mycotoxicosis. As the name implies, muscle tremors are the main clinical sign of mould intoxication, and these may start as soon as half an hour after ingestion.

And last but not least…

10. Poinsettia

As houseplants go, poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is a particularly festive one. So is it toxic? In the big scheme of things it is not too much of a concern. Any pets that choose to have a nibble may get mild gastrointestinal irritation but little more. Where signs do occur, they tend to have a rapid onset but usually resolve uneventfully with symptomatic treatment.

So that concludes our top ten Christmas pet hazards. Avoid these, and you will go some way to preventing any unscheduled veterinary visits over the festivities.

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