OK, so they don’t brave the traffic or suffer the malls but our pets experience holiday stress nonetheless. That big, threatening tree in the living room? It’s a great excuse to pee outside the litterbox. (I mean, it’s in my favorite spot!) And the stacks of sugary cookies spread all over the kitchen counters? (I just couldn’t help myself, Mom!)
From my point of view, the holiday season makes itself known in the form of my patients` presenting complaints. It starts with the Halloween cat candy wrapper attack and the family dog’s stealth maneuver to claim their kids` loot. Thanksgiving is fraught with turkey bone incidents and a plethora of gastroenteritis cases (human physicians probably see much of the same—sans bones, I imagine). But the brief month separating turkey day from New Years` is by far the busiest season for toxicities—real or imagined.
Today I saw my first case of holiday toxicity: the oft-dreaded poinsettia poisoning. (Fluffy nibbled on the edge of a leaf half an hour ago. And now, just look at her!) Meanwhile, Fluffy looks unhappy to be in my presence but otherwise unharmed by the evil plant.
While I’m not suggesting you macerate the leaves in a blender and serve them with kibble, the toxicity of the poinsettia plant is, as the AVMA poison control website offers, usually overstated. Toxicity of this plant (and of Christmas trees, for that matter) in no way lives up to its media hype. While vomiting and diarrhea may result from ingestion, a significant amount of the leaves and/or stem must be consumed, not simply nibbled on, to reveal any symptoms.
Holly and mistletoe berries, however, are another story. In other words, I advise against dangling the mistletoe over your pets` heads for a Christmas card photo op. And you can forget that holly collar or head wreath. They’re cute but they’re also an easy target. And we’re talking about a holiday-ruining, sick-to-their-stomach, vet hospital kind of toxicity.
So how about Christmas tree water? It’s actually not the sap that poisons the water so much as the nitrogenous fertilizers. My advice? Take a tip from Martha and put the whole tree, base and all, into a beautiful ceramic or metal pot to protect the water from pet-related evaporation. Your tree will thank you (not to mention your back as you no longer have to get on your hands and knees to water the darn thing).
My worst holiday disaster? The Bischon who consumed a whole bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips intended for the cookie dough. No cardiac drug was capable of calming her racing heart. We lost her in the middle of the night when fatal arrhythmias finally won out over our best efforts. Want to hear one of life’s little jokes? Her name was Vanilla.
By far the most common holiday disasters? Ornamentation gone awry. Angel hair (toxic and potentially obstructive), tinsel, and glass ornament shard ingestion. These do not make good cat treats. But dogs are similarly indiscriminate. Last year I removed several large aluminum stars from a yellow Lab’s stomach. How they got there nobody knows, as these were not the owner’s personal decorations. (Perhaps from a wrapped gift under the tree?)
Linear foreign bodies from tinsel and ribbons are the most devastating for cats. And never assume any ribbon is too big for your cat to ingest. I`ve taken out huge hunks of thick, woolen yarn and wide bands of wire-impregnated ribbon from kitty intestines. Somehow it happens.
Electrical cord injuries are less common but potentially (no pun here) as fatal as foreign bodies and chocolate. Most often affected pets get huge ulcerated burns on their mouth from chewing Christmas tree cords. My solution requires that you purchase a coiled, corrugated light cord cover and a bottle of hot pepper spray to coat it with. It’s not a surefire method but it’s been known to help.
So what is a concerned pet owner to do when faced with the holiday season and all its accoutrements? How about a battery-powered string of lights in a potted tree with origami ornaments aplenty, chocolate in the deep freeze, and a holly-free wreath. Welcome to the holidays at Chez Khuly!
Dr. Patty Khuly