Don’t let the fur fly at the holidays: Holiday threats to your pets

By Scott DiLorenzo, DVM

Animal Urgent Care, Escondido

With Christmas, and Hanukkah just around the corner, it’s important not to forget the many hidden threats that these festive times pose for our furry-legged friends. Below is a list of common (and not so common) dangers to avoid during the holiday season.

Pancreatitis: Pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, primarily affects dogs (cats can also get pancreatitis, but it is usually due to different causes) and results in severe abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea. In extreme cases, it can be fatal.

Besides making insulin, the pancreas also secretes enzymes that digest fat. Normally, these enzymes are released via the pancreatic duct into the small intestine, where they are activated to help break down fats. In pancreatitis, these enzymes are activated prematurely, causing acute discomfort, inflammation and nausea.

Although the exact mechanism by which pancreatitis in the dog occurs is poorly understood, it is widely accepted that feeding foods high in fat can trigger the illness. Hence, it’s common after holiday feasts, when those adorable begging eyes and wagging tails under our dinner tables cause us to dump whatever remains we have on our plate into their empty food bowl.

Your veterinarian may recommend certain tests, including blood work and X-rays, to diagnose pancreatitis and/or rule out other causes of vomiting that can mimic it. Treatment is mostly supportive, consisting of intravenous fluids, pain and anti-nausea medications, and withholding food for several hours.

The best way to avoid pancreatitis is to keep your dog’s diet consistent and resist the temptation to share holiday leftovers to your four-legged friends.

Chocolate: With the abundance of chocolate during the holiday season, chocolate toxicity is one of the most common issues that emergency veterinarians see around this time of year. The degree to which animals are affected depends on the chocolate itself. A rule of thumb is that the darker the chocolate, the more dangerous. In addition to caffeine, chocolate contains several other active ingredients that can cause symptoms including vomiting, diarrhea, elevated heart rate, cardiac arrhythmias, and even death in severe cases. In addition, it can trigger pancreatitis.

If you are unsure whether your pet has ingested an unsafe amount of chocolate, it is recommended that you contact your veterinarian or local veterinary emergency hospital for more information. If they cannot be reached, contact Animal Poison Control, 888-426-4435.

Human prescription medicines/Over-the-counter medications: The holidays are a time for family gatherings, and with those come visits from family members who may not be familiar with the concept of “puppy-proofing” in the home. During this season, there are many more opportunities for our inquisitive canine friends to sample medications that may be left out or accidentally dropped on the floor. Numerous medications can sicken pets, and some of the more common ones are listed below, with their side effects. If you suspect your pet may have ingested something toxic, it is better to be safe than sorry. Have him or her checked by a veterinarian immediately, as time is a crucial factor in successfully treating any medication overdose.

Dangerous medications include:

• Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen): gastrointestinal ulceration, kidney and liver failure.

• Anti-depressants (SSRIs, MAOIs, tricyclics): various symptoms, from vomiting, hyper-excitability and seizures to lethargy, ataxia (loss of muscle coordination), and death.

• Cardiac medications (beta blockers, calcium channel blockers): decreased heart rate, lethargy, weakness.

• Decongestants (pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine): hyperactivity, vomiting, elevated heart rate, tremors/seizures.

• Opioids (codeine, morphine, fentanyl, heroin): early excitation followed by lethargy, ataxia, decreased respiratory rate, pinpoint pupils, coma and death.

Plants: Many homes are adorned with decorative plants and flowers during this festive time of year. Some of the more common ones around the holidays are mistletoe, holly, and poinsettias. However, when ingested by your pet, they can cause mild to moderate gastrointestinal upset accompanied by vomiting and/or diarrhea.

One plant not always considered in this respect is lilies. Although lilies aren’t necessarily a Christmas plant, they are often included in seasonal bouquets. Several members of the lily family, such as Easter lilies, tiger lilies, and daylilies, can cause kidney failure in cats. Even minor exposure to the leaf or pollen has been shown to lead to acute kidney failure in our feline companions. Vomiting is the initial symptom, but if left untreated, the toxic effect leads ultimately to death. These plants should be avoided in any home where cats are present.

Tinsel, ribbons, string: Cats are usually wiser than dogs when it comes to taste-testing everything they come across. However, the allure of a piece of string can sometimes be too much for felines to overcome. The problem occurs when a linear piece of material, such as tinsel from the Christmas tree, is ingested. Like any foreign material, objects such as ribbons, string, or tinsel have the potential to cause an intestinal obstruction. What makes items of this shape particularly concerning is what they do to the insides of the animal. As the body attempts to push the material through the digestive tract, the intestines become bunched up into a ball, often as a result of the string being anchored farther up (many times around the pet’s tongue). Additional pressure is applied to the intestines as the body tries to pass the material, resulting in perforation of this organ.

Symptoms of linear foreign material ingestion include abdominal pain, lack of interest in eating, and vomiting. Prompt evaluation by your veterinarian is recommended any time your pet displays these signs.

Antifreeze (ethylene glycol): Although not particular to the holidays, as the colder months descend, more pets become exposed to the danger of ethylene glycol. Most commonly found in automotive antifreeze, ethylene glycol is a sweet-tasting, odorless and colorless chemical that can cause kidney failure or death if ingested. Poisoning is a concern primarily for dogs, who are exposed to the chemical via open containers left out in garages, leakage on the garage floor, or its presence on their paw pads after walking through it, followed by licking.

Most pets will exhibit vomiting and/or diarrhea within the first 30 minutes of ingestion. From there, the animals will rapidly deteriorate over the next 24 hours if treatment is not initiated. Ataxia, or “drunken gait,” decreased mental activity, and decreased urine output will ensue. Early detection and treatment is critical for successful outcome in these cases.

As with all toxic threats, prevention is the best course of action. Keep all chemicals locked away from your pet’s reach, and promptly clean up any chemical spills in the garage.

For more on toxins and poisons that are dangers to your pet, visit the Animal Poison Control website at or contact them directly at 888-426-4435.

Scott DiLorenzo is an author and associate veterinarian at Animal Urgent Care, Escondido, He is vice president of the San Diego County Veterinary Medical Association, and an adviser for, a location and booking process for quality pet care while pet parents travel.