The Essential Guide to Pet Safety During the Holiday Season

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Many common foods, plants, and other things abundant in the home during the holidays are there because we delight in them. But what’s good for the goose is not always good for the gander. Here are some of the more common culprits to watch out for this season, along with signs of toxicity, a first aid kit, and instructions should your kitty or pooch foil your best protective efforts.


1) The Poinsettia: It’s a Christmas classic, but if the leaves are ingested by pets, it can cause very unpleasant symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Reports of the poinsettia as a skull-and-bones type poison, however, are greatly exaggerated – it is actually classified as mildly toxic by the ASPCA. Still, some kittens have been known to go blind if they get the leaves’ sap in their eyes.

2) The Mistletoe: For humans, these traditional sprigs of bright red berries are invitations to steal smooches. For pets, though, they can be the kiss of death. Visible early signs of poisoning include bleeding in the mouth, erratic behaviour, vomiting, and diarrhea. An encounter with this plant can also cause more serious problems, including bleeding of the stomach and intestine; liver, kidney, adrenal, and nerve damage; and cardiovascular collapse.

3) The Holly: For such a pretty plant with a jolly name, the berries of the holly are very deceptive. If your pet eats them, you won’t feel like singing fa-la-la-la-la. The mishap triggers tremors and seizures, which might end in a coma, and even death.

4) The Star of Bethlehem: This star may have led the three Wise Men to the manger, but the plant can land your pet in emergency. As part of the deadly lily family, it contains the poison “glycosides” and is more an outdoor plant. Symptoms of toxicity (for animals and humans) are increased heart rate and blood pressure and cardiac arrest. The good news is that your pet has to eat a lot of these “stars” before the lights go dim.

5) The Christmas tree: Considered mildly toxic, oils of some trees (such as the fir) can irritate your furry friend’s mouth and stomach. Symptoms include drooling and vomiting. Also, if they swallow the needles, it can puncture their intestines and cause obstruction. As with all poisons, the amount consumed, along with the degree of toxicity, will determine how much trouble your pet is in.


1) Grave Grapes: From divine wines to sensuous salads, humans have celebrated grapes as fit for kings. If your puppy gulps down too many of them, however, they can be the grapes of wrath (depending on the size of the animal, poisoning has been observed from eating between 9 oz and 2 lbs). Early tip-offs for toxicity include vomiting and diarrhea. In severe cases, kidney failure may occur within 24 hours, and death can follow.

2) Raise the Raisins: Keep this treat high on the shelf, as it’s also on the nasty list for your pets. The symptoms of toxicity are the same as those for grapes.

3) Mad Macadamias: Just a few of these nuts can really spoil your dog’s day at best, with vomiting, abdominal pain and tremors. At worst, they can cause paralysis. Miraculously, dogs fully recover within 48 hours, even without vet treatment. Again, even though cats aren’t crazy about macadamias, best keep a lid on the jar just in case.

4) Naughty Nutmeg: Nutmeg contains a narcotic (myristicin) that, should kitty lap up the Christmas eggnog, can cause her to act as if she’s on a really bad acid trip. If you notice vomiting and bizarre behaviour, this means that she’s likely been poisoned by a hallucinogen. Pets have died from consuming this spice. Even humans can overdose on nutmeg, though it would take massive amounts in one sitting.

5) Chocolate: Among the 17,000+ calls the ASPCA fielded last year for pet poisoning, chocolate was cited as the worst offender. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, excessive thirst, urination, panting, excitability, and rapid breathing – and in severe cases, tremors, seizures, and abnormal heart rhythm. “Death by chocolate” is no joke in pet-land.


What with all the ribbons, baubles, and other shiny things, pets can’t help partying with the new eye candy. But if they swallow bits of tinsel or string, it can get twisted in their intestines and you’ll have one sick little puppy on your hands. So, by all means deck the halls, but clear the deck of anything that can hurt your pet.


Depending on the type and severity of the poison or other damage caused by ingesting dangerous items, you may have only a small window of time to help your beloved friend. Knowing what to do, and having the right tools on hand can ease their discomfort and possibly even save their lives:

1) When possible, identify the source of the poison, as this will be one determinant of the antidote – inducing vomiting early on is the best option, but in some cases (such as with corrosive poisons like bleaches and antifreeze), this is the worst thing to do. Also, take a sample of the poison to the vet if it should come to that.

2) Observe the symptoms and the time of their onset, as both factors are also critical in deciding whether to induce vomiting (if your pet isn’t already doing so). Note details such as texture, odour, and colour of stool; whether blood is present anywhere; their behaviour; signs of weakness in limbs; breathing irregularities; and any other troubling signs.

3) Call your vet, emergency, or a poison control hotline to walk you through the first aid: it may be all you need, or it could save your pet until you can get her to the ER.

4) Have a pet first aid kit on hand. The following contents are from standard and holistic remedies recommended by experts in both practices. As it may well be a matter of life and death, minutes can make a difference in saving your pet. Also, you must know how to administer holistic remedies safely. If you do not have plenty of experience, then going to a traditional vet is your wisest option.

The following ingredients are recommended most frequently by the experts:

a) Activated charcoal (in capsule form) to delay absorption of poison.

b) Hydrogen peroxide to induce vomiting (1 tsp per 10 lbs of body weight; twice maximum). Ipecac syrup is recommended by Gloria Dodd, DVM, as a holistic alternative for this purpose; salt has also been suggested, when in a pinch – a tsp in a Tbsp of water for every 10 lbs. Timing is key. Getting your pet to vomit before the poison has had a chance to act can ward off irreversible damage. The best-case scenario is to catch your pet in the act and see what, and how much, he’s swallowed.

c) An eyedropper or a turkey baster to keep your pet hydrated, should he be too weak to drink water normally. Also, a blanket to keep him warm in case of shock, and for when you drive him to hospital.

d) Kyolic liquid for non-specific poison antidote (holistic remedy also recommended by Dr. Dodd); again, this is not to be given unless necessary.

e) A rectal thermometer: normal temperature for dogs and cats is 101 F and 102 F, respectively.

Another wonderful tip on Dodd’s website is a holistic technique to revive both humans and animals in cardiac arrest or a comatose state. It involves “utilizing special acupressure points for resuscitation,” by rapidly pressing a point below the nose, in the crease above the upper lip, with one’s fingernail. Dr. Dodd claims that she has seen comatose horses stand up on all fours shortly after this technique was used. See the website below.

Ontario-based holistic vet Dr. Autumn Drouin, ND, DVM, also has an excellent website, with very useful information, including how to detoxify your pet. She recommends fasting and a grain-free home-based diet, and nutritional supplements (Omega 3 oil, probiotics, and vitamin and mineral therapy, among other nutrients and therapies). For more details, visit her site, listed below in the resources.

Also, the pet poison section on the ASPCA’s website is handy; it has a complete list of all animal poisons ranging from mild to deadly.

Remember, the chances are still low that your pet will run into big trouble (kittens and pups need to be watched more closely). Many poisons and symptoms are mild to moderate and will pass through your pet, provided her immune system is strong (search Vitality’s website for pets and immune system boosting). With basic planning, information, and a bit more mindfulness amidst the chaos of the season, you have the power to prevent a disaster. Preparedness will give you peace of mind, so make that list, check it twice, and get ready to enjoy the holidays with your human and animal family.

Note: Never treat a poisoned animal at home without professional assistance, and especially when you do not have critical information to determine the antidote. Unless it is obviously a very mild poisoning wherein the symptoms don’t progress beyond minor vomiting and diarrhea that subsides quickly, don’t risk it. Delaying a trip to the ER can be fatal, particularly when serious signs of toxicity are apparent, such as weakness of limbs, rapid breathing, and other reactions indicating acute distress.

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