Tips for keeping your pet healthy during the holidays

Herald Health CorrespondentDecember 17, 2013 

Dogs and cats can be in danger during the hoildays because of plants, tinsel, gift wrapping and, more importantly, table scraps. METROMIX FILE ART

We dress them in felt antler ears and make sure Santa fills their stockings. But for four-legged members of the family, the gift of a little extra protection during the holidays might be the best celebration of all.

Those pretty poinsettias are toxic for cats. Chocolate and raisins? Dog poison. Ribbon and bows on packages and electric cords wrapped with holiday lights -- oh, boy, fun to chew! Rich morsels from the table will make a dog happy -- and really sick.

"People get crazy this time of year. They polish their (pet's) nails and put on sweaters that say Merry Christmas, put on the flashing lights," said Mauricio Vargas, a veterinarian at All Pets Clinic in Lakewood Ranch.

The problem for dogs is that they will eat practically anything, said Vargas, including the shirt material. They'll snatch holiday morsels from the coffee table when no one is looking. They'll eat the plastic wrapping along with the cookies.

"If you want a nice Christmas, don't give anything to your dog," said Vargas. That includes turkey and ham as a special treat of holiday bounty.

"We see a lot of sick dogs during the season. We have a lot of problems with gastroenteritis," he said.

As for cats, be careful about the water in the Christmas tree stand that keeps the pine needles fresh, said Lynn Rasys, director of communications at the Cat Depot, a cat rescue and adoption center in Sarasota.

The packet of freshening powder added to water to prolong the greenery contains chemicals; don't let the cat lap it up.

She agrees that cats shouldn't get table scraps.

"It can be a nibble of this and a nibble of that. It might be rich, spicy food, so no sampling off of human plates," said Rasys.

Case in point of feline overindulgence: Tiger, the 35-pound cat that an elderly owner dropped off last month at the Cat Depot because she could no longer keep him. Tiger didn't get fat overnight, and it wasn't just because of a holiday or two, but Rasys speculates that he got lots of treats.

She made a video of Tiger and how he could walk only a few steps. It became a YouTube sensation (see it at Happy ending: Tiger was adopted and went home with a forever family on Dec. 12.

But too much food isn't the only cat-threatening hazard during the holiday season.

"The first thing we say to watch out for, especially for kittens, are bows, ribbons and tinsel," said Rasys.

"Of course, they'll want to chew it, but they can swallow it," she said. When swallowing something like tinsel leads to a bowel obstruction "that's a trip to the emergency room and surgery."

How to keep a cat away from the tree?

Bradenton veterinarian Janet Doucet's two cats will get Christmas stockings but the room where her Christmas tree is aglitter is a cat-free zone. For a cat, tree decorations are so fun to swat and electric cords can become chew toys.

But again, the No. 1 holiday hazard is table scraps, said Doucet. (Pet lovers, are you getting the message yet?)

"People food is a danger to pets. Food like pork and beef are high in fat. Pets can get pancreatitis which can turn into a life-threatening condition," she said.

Doucet works at Bradenton Small Animal Hospital. She recalls the time one client treated her dog with the ham bone from the holiday ham.

"That was the sickest little dog."

Meanwhile, all this talk of holiday hazards shouldn't stop enjoyment of the holidays with beloved pets. But watch where you put the cookies if you're leaving them out for Santa.

Susan Hemmingway, Herald health correspondent, can be reached at

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