everyone-is-happy-on-christmas, right?

A Party Poopers Guide to Christmas: How to Avoid Toxic Trees and Other Holiday Horrors for Pets

Christmas, like many things in life, can either be a wonderful, charmed day filled with warm cookies, sweet eggnog with family and friends covered with a light sprinkling of snow or it can be a miserable, expensive and exhausting trial of endurance made all the more excruciating by family bickering and a charred Christmas roast. But the one surefire way to screw up your Christmas is an emergency trip to the vet’s.

everyone-is-happy-on-christmas, right?

I gave up long ago of trying for the Martha Stewart picture perfect version of the holidays, the effort and the amount of work involved was simply too much for someone who already worked an insane number of hours at the office. Now, I have neither the time nor the desire to devote to creating such a picture. Because that’s all it really was, a beautiful picture, one that I hoped would bring me the comfort and joy of my memories of Christmas past. What I should have realized, while slaving over a hot glue gun and can of toxic spray-on gold paint, was that my glowing holiday memories of Christmas were because as child and I had none of the responsibilities of the preparation involved: decorating, tree trimming, cooking, cleaning and shopping and all the other million little details that created that picture.

Now, I have the luxury of spending my time doing what I want to do, giving me plenty of time to devote to warning others of the danger lurking in deceptively innocent Christmas traditions. Basically, I am your official Safety Scrooge, ready to drench you with a wet blanket by putting the fear of God into what might have been an otherwise perfectly happy holiday: Christmas.

But seriously, since I really do want you to have a lovely Christmas free of emergency hospital visits, ambulances, surgeons, veterinarians, and firemen – so, take heed my innocent holiday making friend and behold the wisdom of the wet blanket:

O’ Christmas tree

Where to begin? Aah, what would Christmas be without a tree? Those innocent, yummy smelling trees are actually a virtual minefield of potential hazards for pets – the cords, the electric lights, the toxic tree water, toppling trees, artificial snow, tinsel, breakable ornaments, electrocution  – a temptation that many a pet may find helpless to resist. Makes you want to run out and buy a tree doesn’t it? Hold it right there, you hapless holiday maker. That’s only the beginning.

  • Did you know that your local tree farmer is probably using harmful chemicals, pesticides and insecticides if they aren’t growing them organically? I’m sure you would not want to expose your family and your pets to any dangerous chemicals, would you?
  • Should you decide to brave having a tree in your house: whatever you do – nix the preservatives used in the water for the tree stand which can cause gastric upsets and avoid sugar and aspirin additives in the water as well. Stagnant tree water is also a breeding ground for bacteria, so cover it up.
  • Got a climber in the house? Be sure to secure the tree from the ceiling or prepare for disaster.
  • And don’t even think you are doing the earth any favors by getting an artificial tree, because more than likely they were made in China with God only knows what: radioactive scrap metal, contaminated with lead; polyvinyl chloride (PVC) – a toxic petroleum-based plastic which is non-biodegradable and has a huge carbon footprint. You can just forget about recycling that tacky toxic plastic tree because they are not recyclable and will be still be sitting in a landfill somewhere long after you’ve left the planet.
  • The lights: Check cords for any signs of bite marks, loose or frayed wires, proximity to the tree’s water supply or evidence of short circuits. Use grounded “3-prong” extension cords. Electrical shock can cause burns, difficulty breathing, abnormal heart rhythm, loss of consciousness, and death. Call a veterinarian immediately if your pet has been injured by electrical shock.
  • It may be difficult to curb your pet’s fascination with all those pretty decorations. Child gates can be used across doorways to keep your pet away from the Christmas tree and decorations at times they cannot be watched.

Tinsel + ribbons

They may look really pretty, but remember kitty probably finds them irresistible. All the that twirling, sparkling tinsel and ribbon are an invitation to disaster. If your cat eats tinsel, string, twine, or ribbon, your cat may end up with serious stomach and intestinal damage.

  • Swallowed ribbons and string can get tangled in the stomach or intestines.
  • If they are not removed (by a vet) the ribbons and string can saw through the lining of the stomach or intestines, causing a life-threatening infection.
  • Symptoms may take a few hours or several days to appear, and include vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite, and decreased activity. If not caught in time, infection of the belly cavity develops and the prognosis for recovery becomes poor.
  • If you see your car eat any string, tinsel, or ribbon, call your veterinarian immediately.
  • If the string is still in their mouth – do not pull it out – doing so could create further damage.
  • To be on the safe side pass on the tinsel and collect all ribbons and strings after opening your gifts.

Pretty poison

All those lovely plants traditionally used for Christmas decorations, poinsettia, holly, and mistletoe can wreak havoc with your pets health.

  • Poinsettia have a milky white, latex sap that can be very irritating to a cat’s mouth and stomach. Symptoms of poinsettia toxicity include drooling, and sometimes, vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Mistletoe contains the toxic chemicals in mistletoe, lectins and phoratoxins can affect the heart, causing low blood pressure and slowed heart rate. Symptoms of mistletoe toxicity include gastrointestinal upset (vomiting and diarrhea), difficulty breathing, slowed heart rate, low blood pressure, and odd behavior.
  • Holly may be beautiful, but the leaves and berries contain a group of chemicals called saponins. Symptoms include drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and decreased activity.
  • Lilies can cause kidney failure in cats if ingested.
  • Christmas tree pine needles can produce oral irritation, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, trembling and posterior weakness.

Stress + company

I think it almost goes without saying that if your relatives stress you out – I guarantee you they will freak your pets out. You – I’m not so worried about, you have adult beverages and if need be stronger pharmaceutical interventions such as Ativan or Valium, but your poor pets have none of those props.

  • With everyone coming and going, watch out for open doors and sneaky pets. Should your pets decide to make a run for it (I know I would), make sure your pets have updated collars and tags on in case of escape. Microchipping your pet will also help if your pet escapes. All pets should have at least two forms of id on them at all times.
  • Ask guests to keep an eye out for pets under foot and remind them that sometimes your normally friendly dog or cat may be less than willing to deal with enthusiastic children and rooms full of unfamiliar people.
  • Provide a special quiet place with a blanket, food and fresh water for your pets to retreat to when the festivities get too stressful. Just be sure to make it big enough to accommodate any human refugees from the holiday madness as well.

Thanks a lot, Mollie

But hey, don’t let me spoil your fun or frighten you into a state of paranoia about your pets and your holiday celebrations. You relax and enjoy your holidays by keeping holiday decorations, alcoholic beverages, and holiday plants out of reach of your pets – otherwise you’re screwed. Merry Christmas!

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Mollie Morrissette

Mollie Morrissette, author of Poisoned Pets, is an animal food safety expert and advisor to AAFCO. Help support her work by making a donation today.

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