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Holiday Hazards for Your Pet

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The Holiday Season is always filled with unexpected expenses. Like monsoons in Manila, you never know exactly when and how one's going to hit. Will it be more gift-giving than planned or higher heating costs than last year? Well, if you're an out-of-luck pet owner, it could be a surprise veterinary bill, because believe it or not, the season to be jolly also doubles as the season for Spot to visit the vet -- on emergency.

If you think about it for a second the reasoning is clear. The house, usually just a ho-hum array of couches, chairs and tables, suddenly becomes an indoor pet playground. New plants decorate the mantle, aromatic candles dot the tables, mystery boxes overflow with flashy, fluttering ribbons, and a medley of taboo foods awaits at every turn.

Which temptation will catch your pet's fancy first? If you turn your attention away at just the right moment, you may find out the hard way. Suddenly Kitty's scaling the pine scented jungle gym in a quest for the angel at the top, or Fido, the intact male is enjoying his new Douglas Fir port-a-potty.

Unless kitty topples the tree and gets a concussion or Fido short-circuits the Christmas lights, these infringements are just a minor nuisance. But if Kitty or Fido have a propensity for chewing, things can turn ugly fast. Tinsel in the tummy or ornaments in the esophagus, both can put a halt to all food flow through the intestinal tract. Some small foreign objects can snake their way through without plugging things up, but don't count on it. At minimum the trip through the GI tract will leave a trail of inflammation leading to a few days under the weather. But on the dark side, an obstruction often spells surgery. Even an innocent string or ribbon can back things up, often in the worst way. It's apt to drag through slowly gathering loops of intestines tighter and tighter like the drawstrings on a sac of potatoes. Enough pulling and the intestines finally cry uncle. They give way with a rip or tear and their contents leak out contaminating the abdomen with bacteria and debris. At this stage, even the most heroic efforts can lead to an unhappy ending.

If you have one of those wiser, smarter pets who know better than to eat inanimate objects, you're still not in the clear. Tasty plants can also pose a problem. Toxins from holly and mistletoe berries can turn petite pets cross-eyed, causing a medley of intestinal or neurologic signs, and Poinsettia sap can irritate both the eyes and the stomach on contact.

Sometimes foods meant to be eaten can cause serious gastrointestinal grief too. That wonderful turkey feast is fine for humans, but toss the bones rather than feeding them to Fido. With or without meat, dogs swallow the bones whole or crush them into bits that can form a concretion leading either to a case of constipation or to yet another possible cause of obstruction. As an added complication, both raw and cooked bones can fracture into sharp fragments that can scrape the intestines as they're passing. Or worse yet, they can puncture all the way through.

Even the holiday meal without bones can be dangerous. Like the indigestion you get after an overfill of fine foods, Rover may also suffer a case of upset stomach from his sudden holiday diet change. While the upset may start out mild, a twelve-hour wait and the situation could take a bad turn. And if the pancreas, which makes digestive enzymes and insulin, comes into play expect a protracted hospital stay with no guarantee of recovery.

So how do you know when to suspect a serious problem? If Kitty the cat is suddenly lackluster, or Hank the chowhound suddenly refuses a regular meal, it's time to scour the house for telltale signs. If Fido's hacking up evidence of his holiday loot or pooping pancakes instead of his regular firm feces, it's a neon sign -- take him to the vet! And of course, if you see signs of a suspicious ingestion -- a box of chocolates ripped to shreds, a garbage can knocked over with its contents gone, a string protruding from Rover's rear -- don't take matters into your own hands. Call your veterinarian pronto.

Your veterinarian will evaluate King or Kitty with a physical exam and follow up with diagnostic tests if needed. She may use radiographs or ultrasound to look for foreign objects or evidence of intestinal inflammation or blood work to look for pancreatic involvement as well as other complications. Then treatment could be as simple as a special diet and fluids to prevent dehydration, or it could become extremely involved.

In any case, a visit to the vet hospital before the symptoms get really bad and better yet, before you even see signs of illness could save days of hospitalization and could easily mean the difference between life and death.

Now that you know how hazardous the Holiday Season can be for your pets, here are some precautions you can take:

1) Keep all human foods out of reach and empty garbage cans filled with taboo items.

2) Inform your guests that there's no slipping scraps to Fido. He'll get his treats later.

3) If you're bent on sharing your meal with Fido, limit the scraps to less than 10% of his regular daily meal and avoid high fat, spicy foods. Also avoid chocolate and onions. They're toxic in dogs and cats.

4) If your pet has a propensity for chewing on chords, toys, presents or plants, keep him out of tempting rooms when unsupervised. Alternatively you can set up a scatmat barrier around the off-limits area. Then if Fido or Kitty step on the mat they'll get a static surprise that's sure to keep them away next time.

5) Be sure King and Kitty get their regular amount of attention and exercise so they won't have to look for alternate forms of attention.

Copyright 2000 Sophia Yin, DVM. This article originally appeared in Dr. Yin's San Francisco Chronicle Pet Tales pet column in 2000. This and many other articles by Dr. Yin are available at www.AskDrYin.com.