This is the season,” veterinarian Dr. Ryan McKnight says in late October. “Starting with Halloween, every day we see a dog or cat that got into something they weren’t supposed to.” McKnight is part of the team at Hope Veterinary Clinic, where he focuses on internal medicine and surgery. He says the holiday season—especially Christmas—can be a risky one for dogs, cats, and other household pets.
We asked him for suggestions to help minimize risks for pets.
Protect your plants.
Classic Christmas greenery like natural holly or mistletoe can be poisonous to those furry family members. “No one ever thinks about mistletoe. Real mistletoe can actually cause cardiac effects and [damage] the heart muscle, which can lead to heart failure and sometimes death,” McKnight says. “If a pet eats enough of it, it can be really problematic.”
And while a Christmas lily may be beautiful, it’s harmful to cats. If ingested, toxins in the plant can cause kidney failure.
As for poinsettias, which many homeowners have heard are toxic, they actually aren’t as dangerous as commonly believed. “Over the years, they’ve bred out a lot of the toxicity in poinsettias—those chemicals that make them toxic. Most, nowadays, are pretty safe,” McKnight says. But he still recommends artificial plants as a safer stand-in for the real thing.
Ditch deadly decor.
“Every year, a cat that has been playing with tinsel or ribbon gets it caught in the intestinal tract and causes obstruction,” McKnight says. “It basically acts as a saw in the intestine and causes perforation or ulceration. It can be fatal.”
A homeowner might bring in a cat that keeps vomiting over and over. “We’ll look under their tongue and there’s a piece of ribbon or tinsel that starts under their tongue and goes all the way into the intestinal tract,” he explains. “Sometimes it works out and we catch it in time. But sometimes it doesn’t.”
He’s also seen dogs eat shattered pieces of glass ornaments, which can require emergency surgery. Keep those decorations out of reach or protect the tree behind a puppy pen.
Watch the wiring.
Christmas lights are a big part of holiday decor, but they need to remain off limits for animals likely to chew on them. Dr. McKnight says that cats and “pocket pets” like guinea pigs or rabbits love to chew on electric wires or cords. So do puppies. Christmas light cords are rarely well insulated. “They’ll electrocute themselves,” he says. Outcomes include mouth ulcers, infections and even death. “Every year I see one of those cases,” adds McKnight.
Don’t light the lower branches of your tree. If you keep cords on the floor, keep them covered.
Pay attention at parties.
Holiday get-togethers are often the biggest safety offender for pet-owners, simply because guests may leave food or drink where a pet can access it. “By far our biggest caseload is animals getting into things they’re not supposed to,” McKnight says. Everyone knows chocolate is poisonous to dogs, but artificial sweeteners can also be toxic. Xylitol, which is common in sugarless gum, is particularly harmful. “You might also find it in sugar-free peanut butters,” he says. McKnight recommends reading labels to make sure you’re not accidentally serving the chemical to a pet—or leaving it accessible in baked goods.
Grapes, raisins, garlic and onions are also toxic for animals, so don’t flavor a turkey with garlic or onions and then give your dog the leftovers. “If a 50-pound dog eats half an onion, it’s in trouble,” McKnight says. “I’ve seen it kill dogs.”
Adult drinks are also bad for pets. Alcohol leads to disorientation, which can push an animal into a coma or respiratory distress. High levels of caffeine—found in coffee or energy drinks—can cause heart problems and neurologic disease.
Avoid unknown treats.
Dogs love bones, but bones bring a lot of pets to the vet. “We see people during the holidays give a big knuckle bone to their dog,” McKnight says. The dog can grind it up into shards, swallow the pieces, and experience gastrointestinal issues. “We just are not fans of animal bones, rawhide or pigs’ ears,” he says.
Rope toys that fray and plush toys that can be shredded into stuffing can also cause intestinal trouble. Instead, the vet recommends only giving treats that break down easily, like Milk-Bone treats that crumble.
“Your dog doesn’t care if it’s getting a new toy for the holidays, so don’t go out and buy something your dog has never been in contact with,” he says. Buy a familiar toy your dog can enjoy safely.
It’s clear that pet-owners need to keep their animals away from human food, dangerous plants and other holiday decor. But exactly how do you do it? First, provide pets a quiet room or crate during holiday parties. “When lots of people are around, it’s hard to keep an eye on them,” says Liz Gray, who co-owns Amarillo Fetch, a boutique dog resort that offers private training sessions and train-and-board services.
But Gray also suggests using redirection and substitution to help dogs avoid bad behaviors. “We like to suggest positive reinforcement,” she says.
For instance, the Fetch team uses clicker training to redirect a dog away from a negative behavior—like chewing on a string of Christmas lights—and toward something more positive. Rather than scolding when a dog does something bad, a clicker communicates when the dog does the right thing. Then, a reward follows the click. That reward might be a small treat, a belly rub, or a Kong toy filled with peanut butter. “Any type of puzzle games for dogs [are good ways] to keep them busy and away from things,” says Gray.
Dogs will almost always repeat behavior that gets rewarded in some way, she adds, even if that reward is attention rather than food. But reward training doesn’t just help dogs make the right choice. It allows a pet owner to avoid yelling or punishment, which can stress out both the dog and owner.
Training a dog takes time, though, so Gray advises starting now, weeks before putting up Christmas decorations or planning parties.