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11 posts from December 2008


The Twelfth Day of Holiday Hazards

On the twelfth day of the holidays, my true love gave to me...PRESENTS

Ah, presents. We all love 'em, and most of us like to shower our pets with holiday gifts too. Nothing wrong with that - truth is, it's a lot easier and more fun to buy presents for our dogs and cats than other family members; they're easy to please, always grateful, and never return their gifts.

We just need to be careful that our pets' stocking stuffers are safe for them.

Most safety risks from pet toys and treats relate to what happens if the object, or part of it, gets swallowed. And let's keep in mind that if it CAN be swallowed, it WILL be swallowed.

Dogs are really good at tearing their toys apart, and then swallowing the pieces, sometimes very very large pieces. Which can then become lodged in the esophagus, stomach, or intestines. In fact, dogs are also really good at swallowing toys whole - really big toys that you could never, ever believe someone could gag down. But they do. I've seen entire fairly large balls in dogs' stomachs, more than once. Go figure.

Ask any vet how many dog toys he or she has seen removed, surgically or with the endoscope, from the gastrointestinal tract of canine patients. A whole bunch is the answer.

So- it's essential to avoid dog toys that can be successfully torn into pieces, or swallowed whole. And you need to leave a lot of latitude in these definitions because dogs can tear up or swallow things that would amaze you. You want to stick with chew toys that are basically indestructible, or chew treats that are designed to be safely digestible. Kongs are great chew toys - they have a hollow center that can be stuffed with dog food or other safe foods, which will give a dog hours of pleasure trying to dig the stuff out. And as we know, a busy dog is a happy dog. There are lots of good kong stuffing ideas on the internet - just be sure you use foods that are safe for dogs to eat - nothing fatty or greasy, or too unfamiliar to your dog's digestive tract.

As for cats, the most risky toys are those that involved string, or anything long and skinny such as ribbons, yarn, etc. When cats swallow these, which is an unfortunately common occurrence, they often become entangled in the intestines, necessitating emergency surgery, and with a potential for intestinal tearing leading to peritonitis. Cats will also swallow anything small enough to gulp down, such as buttons or other similar object, and because a cat's intestinal tract is rather narrow, these object often become lodged, with disastrous results.

So- shower your pets with presents, indeed! Just be careful what you purchase, thinking always about safety - and never assume that just because something is marketed for pets it must be safe. If only that were true, vets would have a lot fewer surgeries to perform this holiday season.


12 Days of Holiday Hazards...Day 11

On the eleventh day of the holidays, my true love gave to me...BEING LEFT BEHIND

Once again, not the gift we are all awaiting from our true loves. Yet during the holiday season, the fact is that a lot of people travel, and most can't take their pets. How can we ensure our pets are safe and sound when we're off to struggle with airport lines, highway traffic, and crowded train stations?

Well, let's start by talking about cats. I can tell you right now, if you're going away, the place your cat wants to be is in her or his own home. The vast majority of cats would waaaaaaay rather stay home alone than be boarded in a kennel or veterinarian's office. It's safer in some ways too - a boarding cat may pick up a respiratory or other infection from the other animals in the facility.

Does this mean you should just fill up a big bowl with dry food and wish your cat luck? No!! Well, first of all I'm not a fan of dry food anyway, but that's not the point. The best plan is to have a catsitter stop by once or twice a day while you're gone, for a number of reasons. One example: male cats can "block", a situation where the urinary tract becomes obstructed, which is rapidly fatal if not discovered early enough. Stress is suspected to be one of the factors that brings this on, so it's just not safe to leave your cat (who is probably missing you and a least a little stressed) home alone for more than 24 hours at a time.

Other mishaps can befall cats as well. We know cats - they think they're sneaky but usually to their own detriment. Imagine a cat stuck in the closet the whole time his family was away. One time my own cat somehow darted out the door as we left without us realizing it, and was trapped in the hallway of the apartment building. Boy was he sorry when he realized what a bad idea he had. It went from "I tricked Mommy!" to "MOMMY! " pretty fast, you can bet. Or imagine a cat who gets sick while her owners are away, or swallows something he or she shouldn't. No, it's definitely best to have someone checking up on kitty!

If you need a catsitter, it's easy: just stop by your vet''s office or another vet clinic in the neighborhood, and ask if any of the veterinary technicians catsit. Many do, and the nice thing is that they know how to recognize if a cat isn't doing well, or if there is cause for concern. If your cat has special needs, such as medication, a technician's training will come in especially handy.

Dogs - well, unless you have someone who can stay in your home, it's tough, since they need to be walked, and they get pretty lonely too. Many people do have friends or family willing to stay with Rover, but if not your friend may be off to the kennel. Be sure to check out any kennel carefully, including an inspection of the "back". Don't be shy; you have a right to see where your dog will be staying. If you are boarding your dog, remember that he or she may need a booster of the kennel cough vaccine; it's usualy required and a pretty good idea. It's one of those vaccines where the effects are not long-lasting, so don't think that a vaccine given two years ago will still be effective.

Whatever your plan, be sure to leave every phone number you can think of, including your cell and the number where you will be staying. Let your pet's caretakers know which vet you use, and write a note giving the vet permission to treat if you cannot be reached, if you are comfortable with this. Check ahead of time that any medications your pet needs are all stocked up as well.

Well folks, happy travels! Come back soon, your pets miss you!


12 Days of Holiday Hazards...Day 10

On the tenth day of the holidays, my true love gave to me...A TRIP!

A lot of folks will be traveling with their pets over the next few weeks. It's pretty cool, I think, how many people take their pets along when they travel these days - but this does mean we need to plan ahead to make sure everything goes smoothly, and stress (for furry and non-furry family members) is minimized.

If you're planning to fly with your pet, it's best, by far, if your pet can go with you in the cabin. This is certainly safest, and a lot less terrifying, for both of you. Of course, if your pet is too big to travel in the cabin, this won't be possible (in which case you may want to consider leaving the pet at home or in a kennel). If your pet is small enough to go with you in the airplane cabin (and I would be willing to have my pet be pretty darn cramped in a carrier to avoid putting him or her under the plane), be sure to reserve this ahead of time with the airline. There may be a fee.

 Make sure you have all the paperwork you need, which often involves a health certifcate from your vet within a certain time period before the flight. Don't wait till the last minute to schedule this! And be sure your pet is well-identified, preferably with both an ID tag on a collar and a microchip. Whether your pet is going in the cabin or under the plane, if the unthinkable happens and your pet somehow gets loose, you want to maximize the chance he or she will be returned to you.

If you are traveling by car, things are a lot easier. Consider whether your pet tends to get motion sickness (which can be evidenced not only by vomiting, but also by drooling or restlessness). If your pet has indeed shown symptoms of motion sickness in the past, consider asking your vet for something to ward this off. If you will be stopping along the way, avoid leaving your pet alone in the car, especially in an area with a lot of strangers around, such as a rest stop. If you take your pet out for a walk along the way, be extra careful - a loose pet in a strange place is a nightmare none of us need! Make sure your dog's collar and leash are on and shipshape before opening the car door.

Pet parents often ask vets about sedation during trips. Unless your pet goes ballistic during travel, it's generally safer to avoid sedation if you can. Pets are better able to regulate their body temperature and otherwise keep themselves safe when not sedated, which can not only cause a drop in body temperature but also in blood pressure, depending on the drug used. Don't automatically assume pets should be sedated for travel - most shouldn't.

Be sure to take with you any necessary medical information, and if you're driving a long way, consider locating some veterinary emergency clinics along your route. Make sure your pet's prescriptions are refilled if necessary, and it can be prudent to ask your vet for a written prescription to take with you in case medication gets lost along the way. Lots of hotels allow pets these days; it's best to check ahead for hotels that welcome pets along your route or at your destination.

p.s. If your pet is a cat, consider that unless you will be away for a prolonged period, your cat might rather stay home! With the loving care of a catsitter, of course. Tomorrow we'll talk more about pets whose owners are going away without them.


12 Days of Holiday Hazards...Day 9

On the ninth day of the holidays, my true love gave to me...CANDY

At this point, I think most people know that chocolate is toxic to dogs. The usual mistake these days isn't owners giving their dogs chocolate, but owners underestimating how much trouble dogs will go to in order to eat chocolate. Just like the rest of us, the fact that something is bad for them doesn't stop dogs from craving it, so keep chocolate and chocolate desserts under lock and key to protect your canine companion from himself.

So, we all know about chocolate, but there's a new guy in town now, who is even more dangerous to your dog. His name is xylitol, and he's hiding everywhere.

What the heck is xylitol, you ask? It's an artificial sweetener that can be found all over the place if you look hard enough. It's in that pack of gum in your purse; it's in that candy in the dish on your coffee table. It's in those low-cal cupcakes, and is even sold as a substitute for sugar to use when baking at home.

Turns out that unfortunately xylitol is extremely toxic to dogs. It causes seizures, low blood sugar, and liver failure. It can be fatal. So if you've got gum in your purse, put it away on a high shelf in the closet - with the door closed. If you have desserts containing xylitol around your home, make sure everyone in the family knows those desserts present a danger to the dog - and keep those sweets where even the most enterprising canine can't reach.

A piece of candy, a  little cupcake - they seem so innocent. But if they contain xylitol, for your dog they're poison. So check those ingredients, and read the fine print. Because taking Fido to the emergency room isn't sweet - not at all.


12 Days of Holiday Hazards...Day 8

 On the eigth day of the holidays, my true love gave to me...ANTIFREEZE

OK, so if your true love actually gave you antifreeze as a holiday gift, they probably wouldn't be your true love for much longer. But this does give me a chance to remind everyone, once again, about the danger of antifreeze. I realize that no sane pet owner is intentionally allowing their companion access to antifreeze; by now everyone knows just how incredibly toxic this stuff is to pets (and people, for that matter).

But we do need to be proactive about protecting our pets from inadvertent exposure to antifreeze, whether it occurs on our own property or elsewhere.

As temperatures drop, lots of folks are reminded that it's time to top up their car's antifreeze. The truth is that this job should really be left to professionals; even if you are the most avid do-it-yourself mechanic, there is no reason to expose your family, furry or human, to this poison. It's pretty hard to avoid spills, and you just don't want even a drop of antifreeze on your driveway or in your garage.

Keep in mind that neighbors or others may be less careful than you, and realize that any puddle on the street could contain this toxin. Pets who run loose are at particular risk, as you can't control what they may decide to lap up. Every time I see one of those telltale green puddles,  I shudder.

So- don't let your pet run loose, don't allow your pet to drink from anything other than his or her own water bowl, and if you do have antifreeze around, keep it locked up tighter than Fort Knox.

Antifreeze causes fatal kidney failure, among other life-threatening issues, so if you ever suspect your pet may have been exposed to it, get to a veterinary emergency clinic RIGHT AWAY. Time is of the absolute essence with antifreeze ingestion; there are antidotes that can be given, but the time window to do so is fairly short.

As always, if you have questions about antifreeze or any other toxin, you can call the ASPCA Poison Control Center at 888.426.4435.


12 Days of Holiday Hazards...Day 7

On the seventh day of the holidays, my true love gave to me...A CHRISTMAS TREE

How could an innocent Christmas tree be dangerous? The main risk from the tree itself is as a fire hazard. My hubby, a captain in the FDNY, says that a Christmas tree is "a giant piece of kindling". He has been to lots and lots of fires started by Christmas trees. I asked him about this and why it happens; he said that it is most often from electrical wires (such as the lights we wind all over our decorated piece of kindling, extension cords nearby, etc.), and can also be due to candles, cigarettes, or other sources.

He told me that as the tree gets dryer and dryer, the risk of fire increases. So keep your tree well watered, and don't keep it around too long - don't put it up far in advance of the holiday, and don't leave it up long afterwards. I asked him how we can avoid Christmas tree fires, and he said "Don't have one." Uh oh.  Well, his job is to prevent fires, not make us feel better about Christmas trees. The bottom line is that they are a real fire hazard.

On this FDNY website are some great tips on preventing Christmas tree fires, and other seasonal fires as well. It says here that a large percentage of home fires occur during the winter holiday season. Yikes!

 Other Christmas tree-related risks include:

-Ingestion of pine needles (some animals seem to find them weirdly delicious)

-Rambunctious or climbing pets knocking the tree over (which can lead not only to injury but to a fire). Please be sure your tree is well-stabilized

-Ingestion of the Christmas tree water, which can contain fertilizer or be just plain yucky

-Glass ornaments, which can break into sharp pieces

-Tinsel (see the Fifth Day of Holiday Hazards)

-Other "stringy" decorations which can become entangled in a pet's intestinal tract, such as popcorn strings and ribbon ornaments

OK, I admit it's a bummer to realize that Christmas trees can be dangerous, but not nearly as much of a bummer as a fire in our home would be, right?


12 Days of Holiday Hazards...Day 6

On the sixth day of the holidays, my true love gave to me...FLOWERS

During the holiday season, a lot of us will be decorating our homes, and giving and getting gifts of plants and flowers. We just need to be sure that we don't inadvertently put our own pets, or others, at risk.

So which plants and flowers do we need to worry about? Many people might answer that poinsettias carry the biggest holiday risk  to pets. Is this true?

Nope. Turns out that poinsettias don't seem to be terribly toxic to pets, perhaps causing an upset stomach, just as ingesting anything out of the ordinary might.

In terms of holiday-associated plants, holly and mistletoe are the two to worry about, and you want to keep these well away from pets. Best plan is to avoid having them in your home at all if animals or small children live there.

And although lilies aren't generally associated with the winter holidays, they are worth mentioning because they are so very toxic, and can turn up in many arrangements year round. Lilies of all kinds cause often-fatal kidney failure in cats, so it's essential to ensure that any flower arrangements you are getting or giving do not contain lilies; ask the florist if you're not sure.

For much more info on this subject, be sure to check out the ASPCA website.


12 Days of Holiday Hazards...Day 5

On the fifth day of the holidays, my true love gave to me...TINSEL

Ah, the dreaded tinsel. The dreaded, dreaded tinsel.

To the rest of the world, tinsel appears seems so shiny and festive, so sparkly and happy. But to veterinarians, the very word strikes fear into the heart.

How, you ask, could tinsel (so apparently innocent, so undeniably attractive) inspire such dread?

Well, if you ever had to perform surgery on an adorable kitty cat, usually a young, formerly very happy kitty cat, who is now violently vomiting, severely dehydrated, and in mortal danger, to pull a strand of dull, bedraggled, tangled tinsel out of the kitty cat's intestinal tract, you wouldn't be so fond of the stuff either.

Cats LOVE tinsel. They, too, find it shiny and attractive, sparkly and beguiling. So fun to bat around, and watch the light bounce off. So fun to pick up with your paws, to drag about the house, to carry in your mouth, to take a little nibble, to swallow a  tiny taste...and swallow...gulp...and swallow...uh oh. Now my belly doesn't feel so good, in fact, it feels really really bad.

PLEASE. If you have cats, NO TINSEL.

If you think that might ruin your holidays, that you can't live without tinsel, imagine how your holidays will feel when your beloved feline friend is stretched out on the surgery table, under anesthesia, fighting for his life.

Seriously. No tinsel.



12 Days of Holiday Hazards...Day 4

On the fourth day of the holidays, my true love gave to me...GUESTS

Along with the tasty food, fabulous (and not-so-fabulous) presents, days off work, and other joys of the holidays come another treat: houseguests. Whether you're entertaining a few guests or many, for the evening or for a week, even the most welcome of guests can wreak havoc with our pets. While we're focusing on being great hosts, we can't forget to also be protective pet parents.  

Here are just a few examples of ways our pets can be affected by guests. By keeping these in mind, we can help ensure our pets' safety while enjoying the company of our family and friends.

-Food. Yes, food. Guests are notorious for giving the family pet pretty much...anything. Fatty food, spicy food, food with bones, foods that are toxic to name it, it's been given to a pet by someone's well-meaning guest. I kid you not, I once saw a dog who came in to me for sudden blindness, and because her eyes had turned completely white. I mean, COMPLETELY white. She looked like an eerie zombie dog.  I'm an internist, not an ophthalmologist, so of course I showed the poor doggie to the veterinary ophthalmologist in our practice right away. What the heck? She nodded wisely, and asked "Have the dog's owners had a party lately?" Yep, turned out they had. "Had the dog perhaps been given some high-fat treats, such as hot dogs or sausages?" Yep, turned out the party guests had been all too happy to share. Well, the ophthalmologist explained, this dog had ingested so much fat that the fluid in her eyes had become creamy and opaque from all the fat in her bloodstream. Luckily, the condition is reversible; as the fat is metabolized and leaves the bloodstream, the dog's eyes return to normal. But still, a scary lesson about the dangers of party guests, right?

-Trash. Along with guests, comes trash...lots and lots of smelly, delicious, overflowing-out-of-the-bin trash. And since the pet owner is completely distracted by all those very same guests, and so busy, and maybe not keeping an eye on Fido and Fluffy...they're in the kitchen having a party of their own, snacking on all sorts of tidbits from that overflowing, messy garbage can. Uh-oh. Greasy trash, moldy trash, bones in the trash, chocolate cake and cookie's all so yummy. And dangerous. So, when you're entertaining, be sure to bag that trash up tightly, and tuck it away where the pets can't enjoy the buffet. Or the next party you attend may be the one in your veterinarian's waiting room, with all the other pet owners whose little darlings have also been partaking.

-Doors. Guests love to leave them open. Or sort of closed, but not latched. Point is, guests going in and out (and in and out) can lead to escaped pets...which can lead to lost pets, pets hit by cars, or a host of other terrifying scenarios. If you're having a party, with lots of guests coming and going, please please please lock the pets away someplace safe, such as a bedroom or study, with a big KEEP OUT sign on the door. Not only will this protect your pets from open doors, it will also  keep them safe from the food, and the trash... (see above!).

-Stress. If you think about how stressful it is for you to have houseguests, multiply that times a million, and you'll get an idea of how stressful guests can be for some pets. OK, especially cats. When guests are staying in the house, the cat is often to be found under the closest bed. And that may mean the cat isn't eating...which can lead to serious liver disease and other health problems. So please, when you have guests, make sure your pets have a place where they can find some peace, particularly if children are among those staying with you. Make sure your pets are eating normally (this may mean feeding them wherever it is that they're hiding, or staying with them while they eat so they feel safe). Try to keep to their normal schedule as much as possible, and be sure to spend a little cuddle time with them when you can grab a minute. It will calm you down too.

-Bites. OK, the guests probably won't bite your pets. Though who knows? But a scared or stressed pet may bite (or scratch) a guest. And not only will that not make you a popular host, it can cause legal trouble for you and your pet. So if you have a pet who may react badly to the 3-year-old pulling really really hard on his ears, keep that animal confined away from the guests, for his own good.

 Good luck out there folks!


12 Days of...Holiday Hazards, Day 3

On the third day of the holidays, my true love gave to me...CANDLES

For many of us, candles will play a role in our holiday celebrations. Not just for our pets, but for the safety of ourselves and our families, we need to use care with candles in our homes. Many residential fires each year are caused by candles, and some safety precautions should be followed:

-Never light a candle near anything that could potentially catch fire, such as drapes, bedding, or even the Christmas tree.

-Never, ever leave a lighted candle unattended.

-Realize that pets and children are more likely to knock things over, so don't leave them alone with lighted candles.

-Don't light candles in drafty areas.

-Keep wicks properly trimmed.

-Be sure to use appropriate candle holders, placed on a stable surface.

-If you leave the room (or go to bed), put the candle out!

 For more specific instructions regarding safe candle use, and more information about candle fires, you can read further at a number of websites on the internet,  such as this good advice from State Farm Insurance.


12 Days of...Holiday Hazards, Day 2

On the second day of the holidays, my true love gave me to...RIBBONS

Yep, ribbons...also yarn, string...all those long skinny things we use to tie up packages and make gifts look festive. They sure do look pretty...especially to cats, who love to play with ribbons and yarn (we've all seen adorable pictures of kittens playing with that cute ball of yarn). Except the problem is that ribbons, yarn, and string are TERRIBLE toys for cats, and very dangerous indeed, striking fear into the heart of veterinarians everywhere.

What could be so bad about a shiny, pretty ribbon? Or a little piece of string, or the traditional ball of yarn? Well, cats do indeed enjoy these items, and they like to take a little taste, or carry the tempting toy around in their mouths...then they end up swallowing a little bit, except of course once you've swallowed the end of a ribbon, there's nothing to do but keep swallowing, till the whole darn thing goes down the hatch.

Why would a cat do this? My theory, as disgusting as it sounds, is that all these long stringy things are a lot like little mousy intestines, something a cat would gulp down in a similar fashion. Problem is, when a cat swallows a ribbon or piece of string, it frequently gets caught in the intestines (or sometimes, especially with thread or dental floss, the end of it will even get caught around their tongue). Once the ribbon is caught in some part of the intestinal tract, the cat's digestive system will keep trying to push it along, which results in a bunching up of the intestine which is very dangerous. Given enough time, the taut piece of string, ribbon, or yarn will actually saw through the intestine, causing a perforation and peritionitis.

To vets, a ribbon lying around the house looks just like a loaded gun. Ditto for string, yarn, thread, and dental floss, even rubber bands. If you have cats, you should feel the same way. Never leave these things anywhere your cat could get a hold of them. If you have gifts with ribbon on them, put them away in a closet until it's time for gift-giving. Once a gift is opened, never leave the ribbons and such lying around - put these away promptly, someplace your cat cannot get into. 

Let me tell you, ribbons may look pretty when you're buying them, but they don't look pretty at all when you take them out of a kitty's intestinal tract at surgery. They look darn ugly then, and extremely expensive too!

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