Christmas is a season to be jolly for many people and there is no reason why the family pets should miss out on the festive fun. However, Christmas also offers some perils for pets that many people are unaware of.
In fact, the holiday period is one of the busiest times of the year for emergency veterinarians who see thousands of animals brought into vet hospitals injured or extremely ill.
‘Many of these seasonal pet emergencies can be avoided if owners have a little extra knowledge of the dangers,’ says Dr David Simpson, veterinary surgeon and director of the Animal Referral Hospital (ARH) in Sydney.
Dr Simpson cites as an example the Golden Retriever that was once brought to the ARH with signs of a distended, painful abdomen. ‘The dog was allowed to roam around during a Christmas party and ate everything it could get its paws on,’ he says. ‘We had to perform abdominal surgery to empty the dog’s stomach of a massive amount of food and a variety of large objects that were destined to cause intestinal obstruction.’
The hungry canine had amazingly eaten the equivalent of three plates of food, including chicken necks, fish, vegetables, large mass of cabanossi and assorted finger foods. But the excessive amount of food was not Dr Simpson’s major concern.
‘It was the three beer bottle tops, a number of string balloons, several long and sharp, wooden skewer sticks with barbequed meat on them, a lollipop stick, assorted plastic and pieces of fabric that made surgery necessary. It illustrates some of the things dogs can eat; things we wouldn’t think about,’ he says.
Obstructive and toxic foods a danger
Linear foreign bodies (i.e. pieces of string, cotton and lengths of fabric) can be especially nasty as they get stuck and damage long lengths of intestines by cutting into the intestine wall. The string nets on rolls of roast turkey or pork are also a common cause for problems, especially at this time of year.
‘Pets also get lamb chop bones or cooked meat with bones lodged in their oesophagus, which makes them continually regurgitate food and saliva,’ he says. ‘In most cases, removing the bone with an endoscope will resolve the problem completely, but if left untreated it can be fatal.’
It’s also important to know that some foods common in the human diet are toxic to pets, such as chocolate, onions, grapes and certain artificial sweeteners.
‘Christmas is a time when there’s a lot of food going around and pets are at risk of massive over ingestion of food,’ Dr Simpson says. ‘Pets treated with large amounts of cooked and uncooked fat trimmings often get gastrointestinal upsets with signs of vomiting and diarrhoea, which are often self-limiting and will pass quickly.’
However, ingestion of large fatty meals can also cause pancreatitis, a severe disease that requires urgent veterinary care. A dog that has one vomit or some diarrhoea and remains bright and happy is often not a concern to vets.
‘But if the gastrointestinal signs continue or accompanied by pain, depression, lethargy, swollen abdomen, gastrointestinal bleeding or weakness, owners must seek urgent veterinary attention,’ he warns.
Watch out for decorations
Many Christmas ornaments and plants can also cause big problems for animals at home.
‘Cats, kittens and puppies love to play with the string of ornaments, bits of cotton and tinsel, and sometimes swallow the string of an ornament, causing gastrointestinal obstruction. Rabbits are also known to chew through electric cords, such as Christmas lights. Consider using a baby gate to fence off your Christmas tree,’ he says. ‘Cat owners should probably avoid decorating their home with lilies and Poinsettias, which can be toxic to cats.’
Christmas is also a popular time to go on holidays with pets. Many dogs end up at emergency vet hospitals with tick paralysis picked up during their trip away or a snake bite, which can be fatal if not treated immediately with the right antivenom, Dr Simpson explains.
ARH emergency vets have also seen dogs that have returned from a summer fishing trip having eaten prawns or bait left on the hook.
‘As you might expect the hook gets stuck in the dog’s oesophagus or stomach and the owners suddenly have a change of plans,’ he says. ‘We strongly urge people not to cut or pull on the line. In most cases, removal of the hook is best performed with either an endoscope through the mouth or by surgery.’
Fireworks are also a big part of holiday celebrations and some animals run away frightened of the noise. ‘On New Year’s Day we expect an influx of dogs and cats with fractures and other traumatic wounds from motor vehicle accidents that happen after the fireworks,’ Dr Simpson says.
Some dogs are particularly susceptible to firework and thunderstorm phobia, so it’s important to keep pets at home safely secured, especially on New Year’s Eve.
‘[In severe cases] It may also be worth discussing with your vet the strategy of using medications or tranquilisers before the night,’ he says. ‘And, if possible, organise at least one familiar human babysitter who can reassure the animal.’
High summer temperatures are also a danger to pets, often bringing on heat stress due to an underlying breathing difficulty caused by various conditions, such as airway collapse syndrome often seen in the brachycephalic (flat -faced) breeds (i.e. Bulldogs, Pugs and Cavaliers).
‘If your pet is having a hard time breathing you should see your vet as soon as possible,’ says Dr Simpson. ‘Even for healthy long-haired dogs, a close clip for the summer can make them a lot more comfortable and cooler, as well as making tick searches easier.’
Text: Caroline Zambrano
Photography: Roberta Dean