Tips to Keep Your Pets Safe and Happy This Holiday Season

black and white dog with a leaf in its mouth

As holiday festivities approach, pet owners should be aware of several potential hazards to animals. UW School of Veterinary Medicine clinical instructor Calico Schmidt shares the following tips for a safe holiday season, as well as dos and don’ts for including animal companions in your family’s celebrations.

Toxic Temptations

As you prepare and serve holiday feasts, be careful to keep toxic items away from pets. Alcoholic beverages, grapes and raisins, yeast dough, and onions, garlic and chives are among the food items that can harm animals. Also topping the list: chocolate.

Puppy dog eyes
Pleading eyes aside, resist sharing decadent holiday dishes with your pet, as many human foods can harm animals. Chopped, cooked chicken or turkey breast or a recipe from a pet treat cookbook make for more suitable offerings.

“Different types of chocolate have different levels of toxicity, with the least toxic being white chocolate or milk chocolate and the most toxic being baker’s chocolate or dark chocolate,” Schmidt explains. Should your dog consume chocolate, websites such as PetMD’s dog chocolate toxicity meter can help estimate the toxicity level based on an animal’s weight and the type and amount of chocolate consumed. (Chocolate is also toxic to cats, but cats are less likely to seek out and eat it and other human foods.)

There is also concern, especially for dogs, that consuming foods high in fat may contribute to pancreatitis, so despite your pets’ pleading eyes or marauding meows, keep decadent holiday dishes to yourself.

“The holiday ham is something that you would not want to share with your dog or cat,” Schmidt says. Rather, if you must provide a special treat from your plate, Schmidt suggests offering small amounts of cooked, skinless chicken or turkey breast, cut into pieces suitable to the size of the pet. “Even a kitty could have a little sliver,” she says.

Turkey and chicken bones can be dangerous to pets due to their potential to splinter in the digestive tract, so keep any bones away from your animals and in a secured trash container.

Two Paws Up

For a pet-friendly holiday treat, Schmidt suggests making something special from one of the many available cookbooks containing recipes for dogs or cats. “I have a cookbook that has recipes for pet treats, so I’ll make a little dough, roll it out, and use dog bone-shaped cookie cutters,” she says. “That’s fun and can be festive.”

Not all recipes are created equal, however. When cooking for pets, avoid high amounts of sugar, salt or fat.

While a chew bone may seem like a fine offering for Fido, Schmidt recommends avoiding bones of any type due to potential dental damage. “Yes they can sort of clean teeth, but they’re so hard they can also fracture teeth,” Schmidt explains. “With our dentists, bones are a big no-no.”

Cat and decorative lights
When decorating, take precautions with holiday light cords, tinsel, ribbons, fragile ornaments and toxic plants, which can all tempt curious pets.

What can your dog or cat chew on? Schmidt points pet owners to the Veterinary Oral Health Council website, which lists products that are considered safe and proven to reduce plaque and tartar.

Decorating Dangers

Some precautions should also be taken when decorating for the holidays. Tinsel or tinsel-like garlands can be a dangerous feline temptation and may be best avoided in homes with cats. “Some cats like to play with tinsel and if they accidentally ingest a piece, it can act as what we call a linear foreign body or even get stuck in the intestines and then require surgery,” Schmidt says. The same goes for ribbons on gifts or any other long, linear items that cats may see as a tempting plaything but can be harmful if swallowed.

As you trim the holiday tree, hang fragile ornaments out of reach of pets’ swiping paws or wagging tails to minimize the risk of broken ornaments. Should an ornament fall and break, glass shards can cut pets’ paws, “or some dogs will ingest them, goofy as they are,” Schmidt says, which can cause internal injury.

And to keep curious pets from chewing on holiday light strands, keep lights away from the bottom of the tree and keep cords taped to the floor or otherwise concealed.

Holiday Plants

Many plants that are fixtures of the holiday season are harmful to pets if ingested and can cause vomiting, diarrhea or worse. Amaryllis, holly and mistletoe contain substances that are toxic to both dogs and cats and should be kept out of reach of curious pups and climbing cats, or out of the home entirely.

For cats, specifically, many types of lilies and their pollen are especially toxic and can cause rapid kidney failure. “I usually suggest if people have cats, they don’t even bring a lily into the house,” Schmidt says. “Because you never know – even if your cat’s never been interested in plants, what if they decide it’s going to be fun to chew on and play with?”

Puppy with santa hat
Want to outfit your pet with something festive? Just make sure it’s not stressful for the animal and remove the apparel when you’re not there to supervise, says UW SVM clinical instructor Calico Schmidt.

The safety of poinsettias is another common inquiry among UW Veterinary Care clients, according to Schmidt. Poinsettia foliage is not strongly toxic, but can cause stomach upset in pets if a lot is eaten.

Festive Fashion  

While donning your ugly sweater or holiday best, you may also be tempted to outfit your pet with something festive. Should you do so, Schmidt simply recommends gauging your pet’s reaction to the apparel, to ensure they don’t seem stressed or anxious. And remove any apparel when the pet isn’t directly supervised – for example, to avoid the risk of a decorative collar becoming stuck on something or constricting the animal.

“Just make sure it’s not stressful and it’s safe, and take it off when you’re not there to supervise,” she advises.

Other Winter Woes

As the temperature drops and people and pets must face winter weather, several precautions regarding antifreeze, deicing salt, frostbite and more can help to keep animals safe and comfortable. Read our tips to protect your pets from winter hazards.

For additional information:

If you believe your pet has consumed a toxic item, contact your veterinarian or the nearest emergency clinic immediately.

Meghan Lepisto

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