Holiday Pet Safety: Health Hazards

By: Pamela Wilson, LVT, MEd, MCHES

TVMA Member
Austin, TX

Published November 2014

With the arrival of the winter months and holiday season, there are some health hazards that are of concern for pets, some of which are potentially fatal. To keep the holiday season safe, protect animals from contact with or ingestion of the following holiday health hazards:

Antifreeze

Antifreeze contains ethylene glycol, a product that can cause lethal kidney failure and metabolic acidosis (accumulation of acid in the blood and body tissues) if ingested. It has a sweet taste that attracts animals and can be toxic in very small doses (e.g., one to two tablespoons can produce toxicity in a medium-sized dog). Antifreeze can be toxic even when diluted in water.

At least one brand of antifreeze is available that has an active ingredient of propylene glycol, which usually has to be swallowed in larger quantities to produce toxicity. Additionally, propylene glycol-based antifreeze does not metabolize in the animal’s system to form products that cause kidney damage. However, it can still cause illness and death via metabolic acidosis.

An antidote is available for antifreeze poisoning, but early recognition of ingestion and immediate intensive treatment are imperative for the long-term health and survival of the animal. The best medicine, though, is to prevent animals from being in contact with this toxic substance by having antifreeze changed by a professional who knows how to properly dispose of it. If individuals change their own antifreeze, they should not drain it into the sewer or leave it sitting out in a pan for any amount of time (all it takes is a few seconds for an animal to ingest it). It is worth noting that some snowglobes may contain this product as well, so keep them out of reach of your pets.

Chocolate and Xylitol

Chocolate and xylitol (an artificial sweetener) are commonly found in the sweet treats of the holiday season. Both substances are dangerous and can cause toxicity in animals. If a pet has ingested chocolate, they may exhibit signs including vomiting, diarrhea, hyperactivity, urination, tremorsAn involuntary quivering movement., arrhythmiasA condition in which the heart beats with an irregular or abnormal rhythm. and walking abnormally. Ingesting xylitol may cause signs such as weakness, depression, tremors, incoordination, collapse, seizures up to one hour after ingestion (due to low blood sugar), vomiting, diarrhea, yellowing of the skin and gums, blood in the feces and pinpoint bleeding in the gums or skin.

Mistletoe

A romantic prop often used in the spirit of the holidays, the berry of the mistletoe plant is the most toxic component, especially if it is chewed instead of swallowed whole. If the berry is ingested in sufficient quantity, it can cause gastrointestinalOf or relating to the stomach and the intestines. and neurologicalOf the nerves and the nervous system. distress signs, including convulsionsA sudden, violent, irregular movement of a limb or of the body, caused by involuntary contraction of muscles and associated especially with brain disorders such as epilepsy..

Poinsettias

Whether or not poinsettias are toxic has been debated for years. The most recent findings are that it contains no toxic chemical. However, as with any plant that an animal is not accustomed to eating, it can cause diarrhea and vomiting, which are protective mechanisms to eliminate foreign substances. Animals tend to be attracted to poinsettias, so it is good practice to keep these plants out of their reach.

Ivy

The ivy plant is not acutely toxic, but it can cause gastrointestinal upset (nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea) if ingested.

Christmas Cactus

Christmas cactus is nontoxic, but it can cause vomiting and transientLasting only for a short time; impermanent. diarrhea if consumed.

Tinsel

Cats in particular are attracted to playing with Christmas tree tinsel. And since many households utilize it during the holidays, pet owners should take notes. If ingested, it can cause an intestinal blockage or intussusception (prolapsing of one part of the intestine into the cavity of an immediately adjoining part). If indoor cats are present, it would be prudent to avoid using strands of tinsel. It also would be advisable to place breakable holiday ornaments at the top of the tree. An investment in shatterproof ornaments also might be worthwhile.

Cold Weather

The U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Animal Welfare Act recommends that ambient temperature should not drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, especially when sick, aged or young animals are present. If it does, plan to supplement the animal’s environment with auxiliary heating and additional bedding. Additionally, animals should always be provided with adequate protection and shelter from the direct effect of wind, rain or snow. Remember that animals in Texas are not acclimated to cold weather so they must be protected from extreme weather conditions accordingly. Allowing pets indoors is a great way to protect them from harsh weather.

If you know or suspect that an animal has ingested any of the above items, immediately consult a veterinarian, animal emergency clinic or poison control center. The Texas Poison Center Network can be reached at 800/222-1222. The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center can be reached at 800/548-2423.


Thanks is given to Dr. John C. Haliburton, former Head of Diagnostic Toxicology for the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory in Amarillo, for his assistance and expertise in preparing this article.

1Rosendale, ME. Veterinary Medicine. 1999; August:703..