Holiday Safety Tips for Dog Owners

By Anne Dagner, DVM; Krista Williams, BSc, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM

During times of celebration, friends and family often gather in our homes. At these times, it is easy to overlook potential hazards to your dog's health and safety. To prevent mishaps for your cuddly companions, it is important that you recognize these potential dangers. 

My dog seems to enjoy opening presents and playing with decorations. Is this okay?

Many dogs enjoy sniffing out boxes filled with tasty treats, or items made with leather such as clothing or sports equipment. Many of these items can cause an intestinal obstruction if eaten.

Wrapping paper can cause an intestinal obstruction, especially if it is made of foil or other indigestible material. Some gifts or stocking stuffers can be toxic for dogs. For example, paintballs (the paint filled “ammunition” used in the game of paintball) are extremely hazardous to dogs and can cause death if a dog eats them.

Ribbons and strings used to wrap gifts can be hazardous, especially to young puppies who delight in playing with and eventually chewing and swallowing these items. They can become tangled up in the intestinal tract and, as the intestines attempt to move this mass of foreign material (called a linear foreign body due to its shape), the rough or abrasive material rubs against the walls of the intestine, causing inflammation and damage with each intestinal contraction. An intestinal obstruction is a life-threatening emergency requiring surgery for correction. If you suspect your dog has eaten ribbon or wrapping paper, call your veterinarian.

Do I have to worry about my dog playing in the Christmas tree?

Your precocious pup can bring down the tree, so make sure it is set up securely and cannot fall if your dog decides to climb it. Keep ornaments above tail height if you want them to stay on the tree! Be sure to block off access to the tree’s watering dish. Tree water can contain harmful fertilizers and/or breed bacteria that can cause stomach upset should your dog decide to sample this new water bowl.

I love the glow of candles in the holidays – do I need to worry about them?

Candles should never be left unattended, since pets can burn themselves or knock them over with a wag of their tail. Consider using battery-powered candles instead.

My dog likes to chew on cords. Can this be harmful?

Dangling cords of various types are tempting to dogs that like to play with string, as well as young puppies that are teething, and are chewing anything and everything. Puppies have extremely sharp teeth that can easily pierce the insulation around electric light cords or extension cords.

If your dog bites through an electrical cord that is plugged in, it could result in a severe burn to the tongue or an electrical shock that could damage the lungs or heart. This is an emergency requiring immediate veterinary attention.

I've heard that chocolate is toxic to dogs. Is this true?

Many people do not realize that chocolate can be a poison when eaten in large amounts, even to people! Chocolate contains a chemical called theobromine, that has caffeine-like activities. Theobromine is used medicinally as a diuretic, heart stimulant, blood vessel dilator, and a smooth muscle relaxant.

Unsweetened or baking chocolate contains a much higher amount of the potentially toxic theobromine than milk chocolate (approximately 10–20 times the amount on average), but even milk chocolate, in large amounts, can be dangerous to a small dog. For a dog weighing 22 pounds (10 kg), the toxic amount of milk chocolate is about 30 ounces (about 0.8 kg). However, only 2 ounces (about 50 grams), or 2 squares of baking or dark chocolate is toxic.

Clinical signs of chocolate poisoning include hyperexcitability, nervousness, vomiting, diarrhea and death. For further details about the hazards of chocolate, see the handout "Chocolate Poisoning in Dogs".

Dogs have a keen sense of smell and will easily find those wrapped boxes of chocolate that are stashed under the tree!

What sort of festive plants are toxic to dogs?

Contrary to popular belief, poinsettia is not specifically toxic, but can cause intestinal upset. Sap from the leaves and stems of this festive plant can irritate a dog’s mouth and stomach.

Some mistletoe species are toxic, causing liver failure or seizures, while other species only irritate the intestinal tract if ingested. There are several types of mistletoe, which makes it difficult to predict the clinical signs of poisoning with this popular holiday trimming. It is wise to consider mistletoe to be hazardous and keep it out of reach of your pets.

"It is wise to consider mistletoe to be hazardous and keep it out of reach of your pets."

Other seasonal plants that are toxic to dogs include daffodils, narcissi, and spring bulbs that are commonly “forced” to bloom during the winter and bring a “breath of springtime” into our homes.

I like to give my dog some of our holiday dinner as a treat. Is there anything I should avoid?

We all like to include our pets in holiday meals along with the rest of the family, but keep in mind that sudden rich diet changes are likely to upset your dog’s stomach. Vomiting and diarrhea are common medical problems that veterinarians see during any holiday time, and especially between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.

If you wish to feed your dog a special treat, give only a small amount of table food on top of, or mixed in with, his regular dinner. If you feed leftovers that contain a lot of fat, your dog's pancreas may become overworked and inflamed. This serious and extremely painful condition is known as pancreatitis. It usually requires hospitalization and intensive medical treatment; left untreated, a severe case of pancreatitis can result in death.

Make sure that any string or packaging used to prepare roasts or turkeys is safely disposed of in a sealed garbage container that is placed out of your dog's reach. Most dogs cannot resist the temptation of garbage and will eat string or other indigestible material, potentially causing an intestinal obstruction.

"In the warmth of the stomach, the bread dough can continue to rise and cause a complete obstruction that the dog will be unable to pass."

If you leave an uncooked loaf of bread to rise on the counter, your dog may not be able to resist eating it. In the warmth of the stomach, the bread dough can continue to rise and cause a complete obstruction that the dog will be unable to pass. Other food items that are left out during the holiday season can also present risks to your dog. Make sure that nothing has been inadvertently left within your dog's reach.

It is a good idea to keep your pets out of the kitchen during the hustle and bustle of the season. The last thing you want is for them to get underfoot and be burned or otherwise injured.

My dog is nervous around company; how can I help him?

Try to provide a quiet space away from company where he can feel safe, but still has access to fresh water and cozy blankets. Take time to play with him and give extra cuddles and stress-relieving walks during the holidays. There are a number of mild calming remedies including Zylkene®, L-theanine (brand name Anxitane®), and Adaptil® that you can use during the holidays to minimize your dog’s anxiety. Ask your veterinarian if these would be suitable for your dog.

By observing a few commonsense guidelines, you can share a safe and healthy celebration with your dog and give thanks for the companionship you enjoy with your four-legged family members.

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