Author: Ryan Johnson, INFORUM

Humans aren’t the only household creatures that get stressed out during the holidays.
Teri-Lee James with Two Rivers Veterinary Hospital said everything from tree lights to turkey bones can pose unique risks to pets during this time of year. But she said dogs, cats and the other critters also can lose sleep, become sick and feel anxious because of another holiday tradition – visiting friends and family, noisy gatherings and being taken off the routines they’ve come to expect.

December Is “Reason for ‘paws’: Think About Pet Safety”

December Is “Reason for ‘paws’: Think About Pet Safety”

“We do see a lot of illness, and I think a lot of it’s not necessarily related to anything that they’ve gotten into,” she said. “We by far see more illness and being off food or whatever because of the stress related with the holidays.”

Other hazards become more common this time of year, including holiday plants such as mistletoe and lilies that can be toxic to pets and possible problems from eating pine needles.

But Jessica Nesius, a veterinarian with Animal Health Clinic in Fargo, said keeping the furry family members safe and healthy into the New Year is mostly a matter of common sense and not making pets an afterthought amid holiday planning.

“They really are attuned to changes, and I think they’re also very quick,” she said. “If you’re busy with your things and forget about them for a little bit, it doesn’t take long before they can snatch something or get into something.”

James said pet owners can still enjoy a live Christmas tree, but they should take some precautions. A curious cat or dog could chew on the needles or try to eat them, which could end up stuck and cause irritation to the mouth or throat – or cause bigger problems.

“If pets were to ingest those, there is a possibility that they could perforate through the stomach and intestines even into the abdominal cavity,” she said.

The more likely problems come from the decorations on the tree.

Cats are known for their love of climbing, and James said they could get into trouble if they knock down breakable ornaments or fall. Many cat owners instead use cloth ornaments without hooks or other unbreakable decorations, she said.

Pets also could get sick if they try to drink the water at the base of a Christmas tree, which can contain fertilizer or other chemicals to keep the tree green throughout the season.

But other holiday plants pose bigger risks. James said a Christmas cactus isn’t necessarily toxic, but it can irritate animals’ mouths or stomachs if they try to eat it. Poinsettias are toxic and can cause stomach upset.

Certain kinds of mistletoe can cause vomiting, diarrhea or even heart abnormalities, and the festive holiday plant should be avoided in households with pets, Nesius said.

The biggest threat, she said, is the lily – cats can suffer severe kidney failure from eating as little as one or two leaves or petals, or even the pollen, from these popular Easter plants. Lilies are only mildly upsetting to dogs.

It’s best to research before bringing any new plant into the house to make sure it’s safe, James said.

“Even if they don’t have true toxins, they can cause vomiting or diarrhea, which nobody wants to deal with,” she said. “Unless it’s catnip or something that’s specifically for the pet, it’s just best to keep pets away from any new plants.”

If a pet gets into a plant, James said the owner can call their veterinarian or contact the 24-hour Pet Poison Helpline at (800) 213-6680 for expert advice. The helpline has a $39 fee per incident. For more information, visit

Other common holiday decorations, including lights and other items that are plugged in, can be hazardous to pets, James said.

“We do see shocks and thermal burns in mouths a lot of times in dogs and cats, and even people who have rabbits that run around the house,” she said. “They like to chew on cords and things.”

The solution is to monitor pets around holiday decorations, she said. Adding a cover over cords can safeguard animals from shocks and burns, and it could prevent digestive problems or obstructions that would require emergency surgery if a dog or cat accidentally swallowed a piece of wire.

Cat owners should skip out on tinsel and other stringy decorations that are often too tempting for felines to ignore, Nesius said.
They love to play with it, and if they were to swallow it, that can cause an obstruction and sometimes it can be a pretty bad one,” she said.

Candles also can be a potential hazard for cats because they can climb up to investigate the tempting scent of a burning candle, Nesius said.

“If you do have them, definitely don’t keep them going and leave your pet unattended,” she said. “Cats are kind of known for getting up on the areas where those candles are and they can burn their little faces.”

People should resist the urge to treat their pets to table scraps, which could cause stomach upset, diarrhea or vomiting, James said. Turkey bones from a big holiday meal can be life-threatening because they can splinter.

It’s also important to make sure pets aren’t getting into food scraps in the garbage or on counters – they can get into trouble all by themselves if left alone too long.

Most people know chocolate is toxic for dogs, and if they get into alcoholic beverages, they could suffer alcohol poisoning, Nesius said. But pets also are extremely sensitive to sugarless gum and candy containing xylitol, she said. Additionally, greasy foods can cause pancreatic problems in dogs.

Still it’s common for people to want to give a special treat to their pets for the holidays. A can of wet cat food or a dog treat can do the trick without endangering the pet, Nesius said.

“They can certainly get their presents, too,” she said.

Dogs and cats can make themselves sick by eating the wrong foods or chewing on the wrong decorations. But veterinarians see the most pets over the holidays for something else – anxiety, James said.

Pets are creatures of habit, and they feel safe when they know what to expect, Nesius said. But their daily lives can change drastically over the holidays, when large family meals, loud parties and new faces in the house can mean less attention from their owner.

“They like the routine, so when things change, it can be upsetting and different,” she said.

It’s a good idea to set aside a quiet bedroom or office away from the hustle and bustle that the pet can retreat to if it needs a break, Nesius said. Guests also should be warned of any pets – and any bad habits they might have, such as trying to steal food or sneak out of open doors – to avoid an accident.

The biggest thing is to stick to their routine as much as possible, she said. Try to walk dogs at their normal times and check in on cats to make sure they’re eating and drinking normally.

It’s important for people to bring copies of vaccination records and other health documents for their pet when they travel for the holidays, just in case they need to visit a veterinarian while away from home, James said.

Even with the extra risks for pets during the holidays, Nesius said there’s no reason to exclude them from the festivities.

“They want to know what’s going on, too,” she said. “They are a part of our families, so we definitely shouldn’t just shut them out.”