Thanksgiving has come and gone, and despite the date on the calendar, we are grappling with 60-degree Chicago weather. This helps make the Hallmark Channel’s holiday movie marathon seem a tad bit more inappropriate than normal and also augments my somewhat resentful feelings about premature holiday music leaking from every single possible place in the world. And again, I feel the need to be the sobering voice of reason that addresses the dangers posed to our pets by the holiday season.
But before I address holiday-specific problems, let me say this: The high today is 62 degrees. This is hotter than September. If you are the type that loves this, you are in the same company as all the fleas, ticks, mites, intestinal parasites of Chicago that are feasting on your animals. Mosquitoes are few, but still present; please consider using your flea/tick and heartworm preventatives. We have been inundated with flea infestations, sudden outbreaks of suspected skin and GI allergies, and all it takes is a few pills a month to not have to worry about this. If you’ve been seen within the year, you don’t even need to come in, you can just call for a prescription refill.
It’s always a bit misleading to think that various times of the year are more dangerous for our pets than others, but there are some specific things we should think about and address in order to keep our beloved cats and dogs safe and happy, especially as our minds drift to holiday gift lists, vacations, and the slew of abnormal scheduling that occurs during December.
In no particular order:
Cats eat ribbons. Cats love ribbons. Cats are not meant to eat ribbons. If you have a cat, just avoid ribbons. If you get a gift with ribbons, throw the ribbons away immediately. Don’t give gifts with ribbons to someone with cats. At the risk of disrupting the ribbon industry, I would be happy if ribbons were banned from holiday traditions.
Dogs and cats eat tinsel, which can, minimally, cause stomach upset (diarrhea, vomiting, pain) and, maximally, cause foreign body obstruction. Dogs and cats also like to chew Christmas trees and wreaths. We have had a few cats, recently, come in for allergic reactions to glue or fake snow sprayed on wreaths. There is no great way of preventing your animals from getting to these things unless wreaths are hung in places they can’t get to and the tree is put in rooms that can be closed when you are not there to monitor. More seriously, you have to be careful that pets do not chew lights and ornaments. Electrocution is possible, causing serious or even fatal effects. Ingestion of glass ornaments can cause severe mouth and gastrointestinal bleeding. And then as if this slew of fears isn’t enough to make you anxious, always remember that animals can knock over trees, causing damage to themselves and your house. On a lesser note, I think that every cat and most dogs are very tempted to defecate and urinate in the Christmas tree. Plan on needing some extra scented candles to mask the holiday urine and feces smell-fest.
If you are the sort to wrap gifts of food for your loved ones and place them under the tree, please understand that your animals do not respect the lovely ceremonial waiting-until-Christmas-morning to find out what is there. We’ve seen people put candies in stockings, meat products in boxes, and cakes and treats in bags, all to find everything gone in the morning. The subsequent and joyous Christmas morning ER visit may then be needed.
This also applies to all candles, but make sure to keep all lit objects away from animals that are curious or could be curious to jump on the table and knock it over or be burned. Hanukkah candles are not supposed to be extinguished for any reason, so that may mean making sure you don’t buy candles that last for hours. (Hint: the cheaper they are, the faster they burn.) Although it may enrage the rabbinical community, just blow out your candles if you can’t be near them for their full-lit life. Better to risk the wrath of your rabbi than to burn down your house or burn off your cat’s whiskers.
Cookies, cakes, pot roast, candied hams/yams, candy. Your animals want all of this. If you bake a cake and then set it down to go check on the kids, your dog will eat it. Your cat will jump on the counter and lick frosting from a bowl. They are probably working together to distract you. Also giving your dog a lick of turkey or ham juice may seem like a wondrous holiday gift, but if everyone at dinner or in the house does the same thing, you will be finding that diarrhea, pain, vomiting, and a trip to the ER may also be needed to take care of gastroenteritis or pancreatitis. As always, be super careful about chocolate. The bottom line is this: Dogs and cats are a part of our lives and we want them to participate in our holiday fun. But they do not need to eat special things. Put a bow on their normal food or arrange their wet food in the shape of a Christmas tree. They will be happy. I also feel like admitting that I just gave my dog a birthday can of special food and dealt with him having diarrhea for three days.
Poinsettias can cause gastrointestinal upset (especially if a large amount is eaten), as can mistletoe and holly. More serious is ingestion of decorative lilies and daffodils by cats. Christmas/peace lilies can kill cats. Daffodils are less deadly, but can cause severe irritation. Just be careful of ingestion of anything abnormal in the house.
Leaving the house for the day, bringing your dogs/cats to the in-laws, having the new downstairs neighbor check up on the animals … all these things can cause anxiety and secondary stress. Remember that our animals do not always find travelling, new novel environments with new smells, animals, kids, and so forth, or being alone or with strangers taking care of them fun. If you have a sensitive dog or cat, try having the caretaker come over a few times before you go to meet the pet and make the pet more comfortable. If you need to go out of town, consider finding another alternative such as leaving your pet with people they already know and trust. If you are going to be gone for longer than normal, make sure they have ample food and water. If they already suffer from known problems (like GI sensitivity), consider being proactive and giving them gastroprotectants (with our approval) before they get sick. Also think how a giant tree with flashing lights and noises in their favorite corner of the living room may affect their mood and security.
General Cold Weather Wintering for Our Pets
Firstly, remember that your little 20-pound short-haired dog needs to be dressed for winter when going out. Not all of us have Alaskan malamutes and Siberian huskies. A quick trip around the block in 0-degree weather can be dangerous and uncomfortable. Get some nice winter clothes at the pet supply store or online NOW before it becomes horrible outside. Also be careful about the temperature of your home. Maybe this is your first year with a pet and you are used to turning down the heat to 62 when you leave for work. Your little short-haired kitty may be really uncomfortable with that temperature. All pets are different, so talk it over with us, or assess on your own that they are doing their normal things like playing, eating, and drinking.
The salt on the sidewalks can cause serious irritation and harm to animals. I like using Mushers Wax on dogs’ paws that become irritated. The wax also helps protect paws from the cold, to a degree. You can get this online or most pet supply stores.
The cold weather makes a dog’s normal outdoor activities (walking, playing in the yard, socializing with other dogs) less frequent. Take seasonal depression into account when thinking about how your pets feel without these normal stimuli. Come up with some new indoor rituals to replace that extra walk, such as fetching, wrestling, or various games. Try having play dates with other (fully-vaccinated) dogs with whom your dog gets along. This doesn’t really apply as much to cats, but you should be doing this with your cats anyway.
With winter weather comes the use of anti-freeze in cars. Just be very careful and remember how toxic this is to all animals and humans. If you spill anti-freeze in the garage, DO NOT let your dog go in the garage. Do not leave anti-freeze around unopened. Do not throw out any rags with anti-freeze without securing them in a container that would be hard to eat or lick. Be careful of the feral or stray cats that may also seek sanctuary in your garage and also can die from exposure.
Also, despite the projections for a cold Chicago winter, fleas and ticks are still around (see above). We’ve been treating many dogs this season already for such. Ticks can live when it is above freezing. If you decide to go on a holiday hike in the forest preserve during a 40-degree Saturday, your dog still can have tick exposure. You cannot always see ticks, but they are there.
Lastly, New Year’s Eve in a city is always loud, and most pets do not like the secondary outbreak of fireworks, pots and pans, screaming, and (in our case) Scottish bagpipes being played for hours outside our window. Dr. Kelly Ballantyne, the veterinary behaviorist at our location, discussed this issue. In general, remember that having anti-anxiety medications can be very helpful for this situation. Just being careful and aware can help the situation from getting out of hand. Closing windows, using white noise distractors, or just being attentive and helping your pets get through the countdown on New Year’s Eve can really help. The most common side effects of severe stress are gastroenteritis (vomiting, diarrhea, inappetance), self-trauma (licking, biting), and sometimes aggression toward other animals or owners.
Thanks for reading. I hope your holidays are wonderful and stress-free for you and your pets. We like receiving pet holiday cards, in case you are the sort to send them out to people.
Brett Grossman, DVM
Medical District Veterinary Clinic