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Tis the Season to Be Wary (of What Your Pet Eats)

It is amazing that we are already in the midst of the holiday season hustle and bustle. With so many things to do, it is easy to forget how our various seasonal activities can lead to an increased risk of illness and injury to our furry and feathered family members. The number one reason for pets going to the emergency veterinarian this time of year is eating inappropriate food or “non-food” items. The combination of high fat foods and more opportunities for dogs to get into these foods (or be fed by visitors) puts them at a high risk for gastroenteritis and pancreatitis. Gastroenteritis refers to inflammation of the stomach and intestines that causes vomiting and diarrhea. Most commonly it is due to what we refer to as “dietary indiscretion,” eating something that is not a part of the normal diet – including things like the plastic wrap that was covering the meat tray. While we can see this occur in cats, dogs are more likely to scarf up things before we can stop them and suffer the consequences.

Pancreatitis is a condition that can develop after ingestion of high-fat human food, like ham. The pancreas is triggered to release enzymes that break down our food. These enzymes typically do not become active until they are in the small intestine. Unfortunately, in pancreatitis, the enzymes become active and start to digest the organ itself. This can be very serious or even deadly, with clinical signs including abdominal pain, decreased appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, and fever. Both severe gastroenteritis and pancreatitis will require hospitalization with IV fluids to prevent or correct dehydration and reestablish electrolyte balance due to the fluid losses from the vomiting and diarrhea. Other medications for pain and to control vomiting and/or diarrhea are commonly administered as well.

A life-threating condition associated with eating non-food items is intestinal obstruction. I immediately think of the high risk of cats being exposed to linear foreign bodies with all the strings, thin ribbons, and tinsel icicles that are in homes. The first thing that I want to shout out is that if you see a string hanging out of the cat’s mouth or anus - DO NOT PULL on it. It can slice through the tissue of the digestive tract and do irreparable damage. Linear foreign bodies are so dangerous because they get stuck and cause the intestines to bunch up like an accordion and perforate, causing leaking of contents and infection of the abdominal cavity. In dogs, bones and small toys can be readily consumed during holiday parties without people noticing. Cooked bones often splinter and can cause bowel perforation as well. Surgery is often needed for these conditions and may necessitate the removal of a portion of the intestines in the process.

I am sure that one of the emergencies that has already crossed your mind is pets consuming toxins. While poinsettias only cause mild drooling and stomach upset, lilies, common components of flower arrangements, are extremely toxic to cats and require immediate treatment even if only a small portion is consumed. Other plants that could cause significant issues depending on the quantity are holly and mistletoe. Salt toxicity can result from dogs eating homemade play dough or salt-dough ornaments due to the high levels of sodium chloride they contain. Something that may not be as well known about chocolate toxicity is that baking chocolate is about 10 times more toxic than milk chocolate, with only 1 ounce being toxic to a 10-pound pet. A much bigger threat to dogs is from the artificial sweetener, xylitol. If you have a diabetic relative coming to visit, think about the exposure of xylitol in things like gum, mints, vitamins, medications, candy, sugar-free chocolate, pancake syrup, and baked items.


Liquid potpourri and essential oils can be highly toxic to cats, causing ulcerations of the tongue and stomach and even of the skin if it spills on them. The good news is that all these things can be prevented with some forethought. Look at the environment from your pet’s point of view. Remove any temptations or make sure your pet is in a safe area of the house when visitors come. Here’s hoping you can have a silent night away from the pet ER!


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