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Tis’ the season to eat holly… a primer on holiday hazards for your pet

Be safe and merry!

Tis indeed the season to eat holly, as well as poinsettias, chocolate, tinsel, ribbon, raisin spice cake, turkey carcasses, whatever is in the garbage can, maybe some leftovers from the table, that yummy foil that has all the fat drippings on it, and oh! How the compost bin smells delicious right now!

At Adobe Animal Hospital, we generally see a lull in emergencies and appointments after the summer is over (hint: great time for wellness exams and elective procedures!), but then business ticks up around the holidays. Why, you ask? Well, let’s just say that the opportunities for “dietary indiscretion,” as we like to call it, abound, as we celebrate the abundance in our lives.  What starts as a heartfelt gathering of family and friends often ends in an emergency visit when the beloved family dog starts throwing up after having been unattended in the kitchen for just a second, or kitty couldn’t wait until Christmas day to open the presents. Don’t get me wrong- we love to see you and your adorable creature any time! Whether it is Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, or any day or night in between, we’re honored that you’ve chosen to share your holiday merriment with us. We’re especially thrilled when you’ve brought us an untouched sample of the chocolate or whatever delicacy may have been the offending item (we’ll pass on the compost though, thanks anyway). Nevertheless, we suspect that in spite of how much time (and other resources) you want to spend with us, it is remotely possible that you may prefer to enjoy the holidays at home rather than in our hospital. To that end, we’ve compiled a list of holiday hazards to be aware of. Please be aware this list is not exhaustive. That is, the number of ways that pets can get into trouble is greater than the number of pets; they are constantly finding ways to surprise and delight us that we never dreamed of. Here are some of the more common reasons for a visit to the ER we see this time of year.

  1. Chocolate. Yum. The darker, the more intense, the better, and the more toxic. Most people know that chocolate can be toxic to dogs and cats, since they do not metabolize the caffeine-like compounds in it as well as humans do. Around Halloween, we often see pets coming in having eating Halloween candy. This is rarely a problem, since even the so-called chocolate in this candy is mostly high fructose corn syrup, sugar, fillers, and other processed junk. It is the good stuff that starts showing up a few weeks later that can cause trouble. The rich, 71% dark chocolate bar or dense flourless chocolate cake that, if ingested, can make Fluffy act like she’s had 12 cups of espresso. If enough is ingested, the consequences can be quite serious, but fortunately this toxic ingestion is rarely fatal if treated promptly.
  2. Raisins, grapes, and currants. This phenomenon has the veterinary and pet-owning community flummoxed. We still don’t know what it is that makes them so deadly. Even garden-grown, organic grapes have caused illness. Fortunately most people know that these otherwise delicious, healthy (to humans) and delightfully fermentable fruits can be dangerous to dogs and cats. Also fortunately, ingestion rarely results in illness. However, when it does, kidney failure develops, often leading to death. Please call us or come down right away if you think your pet ingested any of these.
  3. Fat. Makes everything taste more delicious. All of us animals have evolved to want it (even if some people have trained themselves not to). While not technically toxic, ingestion of fat, in excess of what a dog is used to, can cause a really bad upset stomach, and more seriously, acute pancreatitis. This may be the most common reason we see cases of dietary indiscretion over the holidays. Drippings on the foil that’s in the garbage, turkey skin, leftover gravy, buttery creamy dishes… this time of year there is no paucity of fatty delights. Pancreatitis is nauseating, extremely painful, and potentially life-threatening.  Humans with pancreatitis go to the emergency room doubled over in pain. We can’t really decontaminate an animal once the fatty food has been ingested, so please prevent opportunities for ingestion.
  4. Bones. Turkey carcasses, meat bones for sauces and soups, chicken bones… The main problem with these is when they get stuck in the esophagus, causing retching or choking behavior, or make it through the stomach into the intestines, where they can result in a blockage, or, more commonly, cause general unhappiness as they make their way through. Fortunately, if they make it to the stomach and stay there for a few hours, stomach acid will dissolve most of them.
  5. Stringy things. Here is a diagnosis you never want to hear from your veterinarian: “linear foreign body.” This tends to be more of a problem in cats, who love to chase and play with stringy things, but we see it plenty in dogs too. The string, often ribbon from wrapped gifts or tinsel from the Christmas tree, gets attached to something else or gets caught on the tongue, and then swallowed. The gastrointestinal tract, doing what it is supposed to do, tries to move the string down the tract, but one end is caught on something higher up. As a result, the intestines getting bunched up on the string. Bad. These animals are sick: not eating, very lethargic, usually vomiting. The only solution is surgery.  While these types of foreign body blockages have a much higher complication rate than other types of foreign bodies, prompt recognition of the problem often leads to a good outcome.
  6. Holly/mistletoe, and poinsettias. If ingested in small amounts, these plants ae mildly toxic and will result in either nothing, or mild gastrointestinal sadness. If plants in the holly family are ingested in greater quantities, neurologic signs can develop. For a thorough list of toxic plants, see the websites listed below.
  7. Wild mushrooms. Ok, this has nothing to do with the holidays, but here in Northern California, we start to see mushrooms popping up this time of year with the rains. Most mushrooms are safe or will only cause mild upset stomach, but the ones that are bad are really bad and cause liver failure that is difficult to reverse once it has started. Puppies tend to be the least discriminating and therefore are often victims. Please keep any eye on what is going into your dog’s mouth at all times when outside.

The bottom line:

Early recognition is the key!

Please call us immediately  if you suspect your pet has ingested something that is going to cause a problem. If you suspect a toxin, you can also look it up on these fantastic websites:

Both Pet Poison Helpline and ASPCA Animal Poison Control have 24 hour call in services. For a reasonable fee, you can get advice from a veterinarian specially trained in toxicology, who can help you determine whether your pet needs to be seen. If you do come to Adobe after making the call, we can continue to confer with their experts in determining the best plan for your pet.

Either way, we are here for you and your animals, 24/7!

Be safe and merry!

Your friends at Adobe Animal Hospital

by Nicolette Zarday, DVM, MPH