Pet Safety Around the Holidays

Oct 29, 2018

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

The two month stretch of holidays between Halloween and New Year’s Day is revered as the most exciting, fun, and family-filled period of the entire year. For those of us that work in veterinary medicine, it is also one of the busiest.

During these times, pets are more likely to have less supervision, ingest harmful foods or substances, become lost from home, or suffer from fear and/or anxiety.

We want your pets to enjoy these special occasions as much as the rest of the family this holiday season, so we are sharing some of the most common pet illnesses and conditions that land them in the hospital during the holidays.

Rumbly Tummies

Many foods that are okay for us to eat are common culprits for general ‘upset stomach’ symptoms in our pets. ‘People’ foods typically contain too much fat, sugar, and carbohydrates for dogs and cats, so eating them can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, decreased appetite, or more serious conditions such as pancreatitis, inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS), or hemorrhagic gastroenteritis (HGE). Bacon, cheese, hot dogs, and other greasy, fatty, or fried foods are especially notorious for causing these conditions, even if the pet has eaten them before or even if ingested in very small amounts. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, often require hospitalization, or may even be fatal. Remember that it’s best to avoid human foods altogether and stick to your pet’s regular diet or veterinarian-approved favorite pet treats.


Some of the most common pet emergencies we see around the holidays involve various toxicities, including foods, food ingredients, medications, and recreational drugs.

Garlic and onions cause the destruction of red blood cells, resulting in anemia and sudden kidney damage or even failure in severe cases. Garlic appears to be more toxic than onions, and garlic/onion powders are more dangerous in smaller amounts since they are very concentrated amounts.

Ingestion of foods containing grapes, raisins, or currants (such as cereals, trail mixes, baked goods, fruit cakes, etc.) can lead to sudden kidney failure in pets. The toxic substance in these foods is still unknown, but we do know that there is great variability in sensitivity among dogs and cats; one may ingest a large amount with little to no consequence, or one may suffer fatal toxicity from ingesting a very small amount.

Chocolate, coffee, and caffeine contain substances called methylxanthines which can cause stomach upset, hyperactivity, rapid or abnormal heartbeat, tremors, seizures, coma, or even death if ingested. Cocoa beans and cocoa powder are considered most toxic, followed by Baker’s (unsweetened) chocolate, then semi-sweet chocolate, dark chocolate, milk chocolate, and finally white chocolate.

Pets may suffer severe or fatal alcohol ‘poisoning’ if they consume drinks that contain alcohol, just like people. Since most breeds of dogs and cats are much smaller than the average adult human, they need to consume much less than the average adult for toxicities to occur. Remember to keep your cocktail drinks covered and/or out of reach of curious doggie and kitty tongues.

Keep all medications in their original childproof bottles and out of your pets’ reach and remind your holiday houseguests to do the same (think: Granny’s pill boxes on the night stand). We’ve all seen our cats swipe items off countertops, or our dogs chew on something they shouldn’t. Assume that if it’s within reach, they will get it.

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is extremely toxic to cats, leading to sudden liver and kidney failure. It also has a very narrow margin of safety for use in dogs and should not be given unless recommended by your veterinarian. Avoid all non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) made for people such as ibuprofen (Motrin/Advil), naproxen (Aleve), and aspirin. These medications work in a different way in pets and can cause bleeding stomach or intestinal ulcers, as well as liver and kidney failure.

The most common recreational drug toxicity we see is marijuana toxicity. Second-hand inhalation or ingestion causes lethargy, incoordination/weakness, increased appetite, rapid or slowed heartbeat, hyperactivity, vocalizing, dilated pupils, urinary incontinence, tremors, seizures, or coma. Toxicities associated with chocolate ingestion also apply if it is a marijuana brownie that is ingested.

Poinsettias are a popular ornamental plant at Christmas time and are thought by many to be toxic if ingested. While ingestion can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, and irritation within the mouth and digestive system, they are not considered a true toxin. Symptoms generally resolve within a few days,  but you should contact your veterinarian if they persist beyond that or seem to be severe.


Intestinal obstruction is a real concern in pets this time of year due to holiday meals, guests giving pets treats they don’t ordinarily receive, home decorations, and gift wrapping. Any object can cause an obstruction if it is unable to be passed through the intestine during digestion. Turkey, chicken, ham, and deer bones are common culprits that may become stuck if swallowed whole or in large pieces, or may splinter and break apart, especially if cooked.

Remember when decorating for Christmas that cats and tinsel do not mix. Tinsel is one of the most common materials retrieved from cats that have developed intestinal obstruction at Christmas time. It forms a very dangerous linear foreign body obstruction that must be removed by exploratory surgery. The same is true for ribbons of gift wrapping. Dogs are at risk of developing obstruction from tinsel and ribbons as well, but cats seem to be more interested in playing with and swallowing these items than dogs. Symptoms of an intestinal obstruction include vomiting, decreased appetite, diarrhea, smaller bowel movements, and lethargy. Pets may have all or some of these symptoms, so don’t wait until you see all symptoms before visiting your veterinarian. Waiting can worsen the condition, leading to a much more complicated surgical procedure, worse prognosis, or even death.

Anxiety, Fears, and Fights

Many pets suffer anxiety around the holidays when their daily routines are changed or interrupted. Houseguests at Thanksgiving and Christmas, Trick-or-Treaters at Halloween, and fireworks on New Year’s Eve are all very common sources of anxiety or fear for dogs and cats. Sometimes signs of stress in our pets are subtle and may go unnoticed. Barking, trembling, restlessness, and attention-seeking are common signs in dogs, whereas cats may hide, dart away, hiss, urinate or defecate outside the litter box, or be otherwise unsociable. During times of stress, pets are also more likely to have fights with visiting pets or even with their own housemates, and this can lead to bite wounds or other injuries that require medical attention. Talk to your veterinarian about any anxieties or phobias that your pets may have. There are plenty of anti-anxiety nutraceutical and pharmaceutical medications that are beneficial to pets during times of stress, and your veterinarian will help you decide which will be best for your pets.


Pets are more likely to become lost from home during the holidays. This is due to the opening and closing of doors more often when guests are present, as well as pets escaping at rest stops, etc. while traveling.  Be sure that your pets are all properly microchipped and that their microchip registration information is current before traveling. Now is a good time to discuss anti-anxiety medications with your veterinarian as well if you plan to travel. Also, don’t forget your pet’s seatbelt or carrier. The distraction of unrestrained pets in a moving vehicle has been shown to be more dangerous than driving drunk. Of course, seatbelts also protect your pet in the event of an accident.

Dr. Tashina Elswick