Holiday Hazards for Pets

Tips for keeping your pet merry this season
By Shea Cox DVM, CVPP, CHPV, December 2011, Updated June 2021
holiday hazards for pets

As the holiday season gears up, have you noticed that with the increase in fun and festivities comes a simultaneous increase in the level pet mischief? There just seems to be no way for our curious pups to resist the allure of all that holiday paraphernalia.  Because these traditions introduce new variables into their furry friend’s environment, pet owners should be aware of any potential hazards that might arise.

Top Holiday Dangers to Pets

Below is a list (all naughty, no nice!) of the common holiday hazards for pets that I treat on an emergency basis.

1. Holiday Lights

Decorative lights on the tree can pose a serious electrocution hazard when chewed by dogs. Signs of electric shock range from a dazed and confused behavior to difficulty breathing, burn injuries in the mouth, seizures and potentially sudden death. Immediate evaluation by a veterinarian is recommended if you suspect electrocution. Take appropriate precautions to ensure lights are hung out of reach and the cord is adequately protected. Use grounded three-prong extension cords and strictly follow manufacturer's guidelines for light usage.

This Frenchie arrived at the ER with a one-inch of ribbon peeking out from her rectum, which Shea Cox removed without incident.. 
This Frenchie arrived at the ER with a one-inch of ribbon peeking
out from her rectum, which Dr. Shea Cox removed without incident.

2. Tinsel and Ribbons

Tinsel and ribbon can potentially cause an obstruction in the intestines when ingested. In medical terms, we refer to these items as “linear foreign bodies,” and they have significant potential to get bound up within the intestinal tract causing a blockage, and in some cases, cutting through the intestines.

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Most often, these linear foreign bodies get “hung up” in the intestines, causing deadly “bunching” and can only be removed by surgical means. If you notice a bit of ribbon, tinsel or string, whether from the mouth or the other end (see photo), it is important to remember never cut the ribbon or attempt to remove it yourself! Seek veterinary care immediately.

Vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite and depression will be the most common abnormalities seen when an intestinal obstruction is developing, and early surgical care is essential. Exercise extreme caution and never leave pets unattended around string, tinsel and ribbon. 

3. Christmas Ornaments

Ornaments may be ingested and have potential to cause an obstruction leading to the need for surgery. Ornaments made of glass can fall and break, leading to cuts and other injuries. Adequately secure ornaments and place them above the reach of wandering paws and curious noses.

4. Christmas Trees

Tree-stand water contains preservatives and sap that may cause vomiting and diarrhea. In addition to the water, the pine needles can irritate the esophagus and may cause vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, trembling and weakness.

5. Decorative Plants

Festive plants are often displayed during the holidays and precautions should be taken to avoid ingestion of any plant. Even “nontoxic” plant material, such as pine needles, may cause stomach upset.

Common holiday plants to take particular note of include:

• Lilies are extremely toxic to cats. Ingestion of any part of the plant, even in small amounts, can cause life-threatening toxicity. Early signs include lethargy and vomiting. Without prompt treatment, most cats will become extremely ill and develop kidney failure within 36 to 48 hours of ingestion.

• Amaryllis, also known as Belladonna lily, often causes vomiting, diarrhea and belly pain in cats and dogs. It can cause more serous problems including low blood pressure and liver damage.

• Poinsettia plants are considered to be mildly toxic, often only causing mild stomach upset and/or skin irritation. Treatment is recommended only if any clinical signs develop.

• Mistletoe and holly species contain a variety of potentially toxic constituents, but serious poisonings are infrequent. Clinical signs are usually limited to salivation, vomiting and diarrhea.

6. Potpourri

Potpourri is often used around the house to put us in the holiday mood. The plant material and some additives are very irritating to the skin, mouth and intestinal tract. If skin exposure is suspected, then bathing with a mild soap is recommended and medical care may be needed to treat irritation and pain that follow exposure. Ingestion often results in signs that may include drooling, loss of appetite, vomiting, and in some cases, disorientation. 

7. Hazardous Treats

Treats are a common source of holiday emergencies. While it can be hard to resist your pleading pet’s eyes, it is important to recognize the dangers of particular foods and treats:

• Bones expose your pets to many unnecessary risks, including the potential for choking or developing an obstruction in their intestinal tract. Cooked bones when chewed can fragment into small slivers that can cause severe irritation to the intestinal tract as they pass.

Rawhides and bully sticks have potential to cause choking and intestinal obstruction.

8. Toxic Foods

“People foods” that we take for granted as being safe for us are not always safe for our pets, in fact some foods are downright toxic to dogs.

• Raisins and grapes have been implicated in causing kidney failure in dogs.

• Onion ingestion can cause blood cell damage in both dogs and cats.

• Chocolate contains caffeine and a caffeine-like substance (theobromine) that dogs and cats are highly sensitive to causing stomach upset, tremors, seizures and irregular heartbeat.

• Macadamia nuts cause dogs to show a variety of strange neurological signs that can include weakness, apparent pain, disorientation and tremors.

• Fatty foods such as meat trimmings are common culprits for causing stomach upset, vomiting, diarrhea and pancreatitis.

9. Open Doors

Dr. Lori Teller, an associate professor in the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine reminds us to keep an eye on our dogs. “If your pet enjoys a good get-together, make sure to keep it away from doors that are frequently opened so that you don’t have to worry about your pet getting loose in all of the excitement,” Teller said. “Just in case, make sure your pet is wearing a collar and identification tag and that it has a microchip that is registered with your current information in a microchip database. Advise guests not to slip treats to your pet as well.”

During the season of gratitude and family, many dog owners may wish to include all of their loved ones, human and animal, in their celebrations. Creating a pet-safe environment ensures that both owners and their furry friends can enjoy the holidays worry-free.

I hope this information helps you and your four-legged family members avoid any “bah-humbugs” this holiday season!

Photo by Minnie Zhou / Unsplash

Dr. Shea Cox is the founder of BluePearl Pet Hospice and is a global leader in animal hospice and palliative care. With a focus on technology, innovation and education, her efforts are changing the end-of-life landscape in veterinary medicine.