One of my most memorable holiday cases was the Labrador retriever puppy (what else!) who had swallowed an entire string of Christmas tree lights. When he was brought in, gagging, I opened his mouth and could still see the plug, far in the back.
I have to admit that it was tempting to anesthetize him, plug it in, and see if an ethereal glow from the body would tell us where in the gastrointestinal tract to look for the lights. This was a case that called for a specialist, though.
We didn’t have the imaging or endoscopic equipment to locate and remove the lights. Sometimes, it’s almost as if pets think the holidays aren’t complete without a trip to the emergency room. They suffer electroshock burns of the mouth from chewing on Christmas tree light cords, devour whole plates full of fudge, eat the toxic mistletoe berries off kissing balls, and raid the trash for the string used to wrap the turkey or ham.
We’ve seen it all, and we don’t want you to have to. The following tips will help you keep your dogs and cats safe, whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Festivus.
• Cover garbage cans securely or place them up high or behind closed doors. Eating cooked bones or the paper or string used to wrap meat can cause intestinal obstructions or injuries. Nobody wants to spend what should be a festive day waiting to hear the results of a pet’s emergency surgery.
• Replace live holiday plants with artificial ones. Amaryllis, holly, lilies and mistletoe all have varying degrees of toxicity. If you’re lucky, your pet will simply nibble on them and then throw up the greenery in the middle of Uncle Marvin’s long-winded story about his visit to the Grand Canyon. But in a worst-case scenario, your pet could suffer severe vomiting and diarrhea, difficulty breathing, or even death in a matter of hours.
• Tether the tree. What self-respecting cat isn’t going to climb the Christmas tree? To keep it upright, use fishing line to anchor the tree to the ceiling. Surrounding the tree with an exercise pen – tastefully decorated, of course – will further protect it from marauding dogs or curious kittens.
• Say “no” to tinsel and ribbons. Cats, and sometimes dogs, love to play with the shiny strands, but if swallowed, they can cut or obstruct the intestinal tract.
• Go electric. Burning candles are beautiful, but it takes only the swish of a dog or cat tail to knock them over, causing burns or starting fires. Use flameless candles instead.
• Avoid shock and oww. Coat electrical cords with Bitter Apple or wrap them in tough cable covers to prevent curious pets from chewing on them.
• Scent sense. Scent diffusers and potpourri contain highly toxic essential oils. Pets who lap up the spilled liquid or ingest large amounts of potpourri can suffer severe burns to the mouth and esophagus or other serious internal injuries. Keep containers away from pets, and wipe up spills immediately and thoroughly.
• Provide a retreat. Make sure your pet has a quiet place, such as a crate or little-used room, where he can go to get away from visitors, loud holiday music and the high-pitched squeals of children.
• Is it safe to put a Santa cap or antlers on your pet? Your call. How vengeful is he? But the best way to enjoy the holidays with your pet is to schedule some extra cuddle time in front of the tree. A nice, long ear scratch will help both of you survive the season.
Does your dog love to swallow coins? It’s not an uncommon behavior, especially in puppies, but pennies minted after 1982 are made primarily of zinc. It’s an important trace element in the body, but toxic in large amounts.
Besides scarfing down pocket change, other ways pets can develop zinc toxicosis include gnawing on metal crates or old window frames in vintage homes or licking skin covered in zinc oxide creams or ointments. The condition causes gastrointestinal upset and anemia and is sometimes misdiagnosed as immune-mediated hemolytic anemia. If your pet has a bellyful of pennies, they may need to be removed surgically.
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books. The two are affiliated with Vetstreet.com. Dr. Becker can also be found at facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker.