Pets of all shapes, sizes and species celebrate the winter season with us. Whether you’re warming up by the fireplace or wrapping presents, it’s likely they’re not far behind, ready to offer a helping paw.
However, longstanding holiday traditions and activities often pose unexpected risks to our beloved pets. Molly Racette, a clinical assistant professor at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine, offers her thoughts on some common factors and concerns the Emergency and Critical Care team at UW Veterinary Care often see this time of the year. Racette is a specialist veterinarian who is a board-certified diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care.
Seasonal Plants and Decorations
Animals are naturally curious and tend to investigate eye-catching, foreign items through biting and tasting. However, the consumption of some seasonal plants and decorations increases the chances of gastrointestinal obstruction for both dogs and cats, which can be life-threatening and require surgery.
“Certain holiday plants – such as holly, mistletoe, and lilies – can cause toxicity,” Racette says. Cats, and occasionally dogs, also ingest decorations like tinsel, ribbons, ornaments and paper products. Additionally, wires and lights may deliver electrical shocks if animals chew on them.
It’s relatively well-known that chocolate is toxic to dogs, but people underestimate the lengths an animal’s nose will go to find it. “Dogs will frequently find chocolate in wrapped packages under the tree and help themselves,” Racette says. “The packaging poses a risk, too.”
Grapes, raisins and macadamia nuts are also dangerous. More specifically, sugar-free foods can significantly and negatively impact an animal. “Xylitol, a sugar substitute harmless to humans, can cause low blood sugar and liver toxicity in dogs,” Racette adds. “And dogs eating too much of a food they aren’t used to – like table scraps or bones – can cause vomiting, diarrhea or pancreatitis.”
“You don’t want your pet to be the one rushed into the clinic and brought to the front of the triage line.”
Anxious pets may have a hard time coping with large gatherings of people. “Not all pets are comfortable with friends and family visiting. It’s best to have a safe room your pets can retreat to if they want to get away,” Racette advises. “It’s also important to make sure pets can’t run out of the door as people enter and exit!”
And though your guests might want to succumb to your pet’s sweet begging behavior, encourage them to avoid giving out human food or treats.
Though a furry friend might seem like a wonderful gift, Racette emphasizes that pets are not presents. “Unless the family decided to get a pet together, pets should never be a holiday present,” Racette says. “Many well-intentioned people buy pets for loved ones who then decide they don’t have the time or ability to take care of a new pet.”
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), around 6.5 million companion animals are surrendered to community animal shelters nationwide, including during and directly after the holidays.
Emergency Room Visits
No one wants to spend time at an ER, especially during a season dedicated to well-being and happiness. However, many primary care veterinarians are closed or unable to see patients around Christmas, Hanukkah and other holidays. This puts a strain on ER staff and the services they offer.
“Please understand that veterinary staff are overwhelmed with cases and are working their absolute hardest to address the needs of all the pets that need care,” Racette says. “A little kindness, compassion and patience will go a long way. Be prepared to wait, and understand that you don’t want your pet to be the one rushed into the clinic and brought to the front of the triage line.”
Should you need to seek or refer emergency care for an animal at UW Veterinary Care, please review the ER hours of operation and call ahead (for small animals, 608-263-7600; for large animals, 608-263-6300) to verify availability. The hospital’s ER status and capacity change frequently due to staffing shortages and space constraints.