Every pet owner should guard against these 10 holiday hazards
Cold weather, big crowds, heavy foods, and frequent parties may be predictable parts of the holiday season, but all that festive chaos can pose a danger to pets.
“Not only are pet owners juggling many responsibilities around the holiday season, but there are often changes in routines—such as having houseguests—which can lead to hazardous situations for pets,” says Leni Kaplan, D.V.M., a lecturer at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
We asked Kaplan and other experts about what puts pets most at risk over the holidays, and what you can do to keep your pet safe.
1. Extremely Cold Temperatures
Whether your pet has long or short fur, once the temperature drops below 0° F, time outside is just as threatening to animals as it is to people—and should be kept to a minimum, according to Edward Cooper, V.M.D., head of the Small Animal Emergency and Critical Care Service at The Ohio State University.
What to do: Limit time outside in temperatures below freezing to no more than a short walk, or use a pet-friendly jacket—especially for small breeds and dogs with less body fat, such as the greyhound. Pets that like to spend time outside in the yard should have access to a warm, dry space that shelters them from wind and the elements, Cooper says. Easy access back into the house through a dog door should suffice.
2. Rat and Mouse Poison
Cold weather can drive rodents into homes to escape the cold weather—and that can mean more rodenticide set up by homeowners trying to get rid of them. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for pets to ingest those poisons by accident, says Tina Wismer, D.V.M., medical director of the Animal Poison Control Center at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
What to do: Be mindful about where you lay rodenticide. For example, if your pet uses a dog door that leads into the mudroom, do not put rodenticide anywhere on the floor of that area. Store mouse and rat poison in a sealed unit, high up and away from your pet’s reach. Better yet, opt for a safe, humane solution such as a live (catch-and-release) trap, and work with an exterminator to eliminate rodents’ food sources and entry points.
3. Frozen Ponds and Lakes
Pets, eager to explore, may not know to avoid partially frozen bodies of water. “Dogs in particular may be more adventurous, going out over ice that’s not strong enough,” Cooper says. “In freezing temperatures [the likelihood] of getting hypothermia is pretty high.”
What to do: If you’re heading out near frozen or cold water in the winter, don’t risk it: Keep pets with a penchant for running ahead or away from you on a leash.
4. Poinsettias, Lilies, and Other Plants
The red and green foliage of poinsettia makes it ideal for a holiday bouquet, but a pet who ingests the plant can experience mild irritation around the mouth. Sprigs of holly, once eaten, can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Those are not the worst-case scenarios, however.
“Poinsettia gets a bad rep,” Cooper says. “Lilies are actually the bigger toxic concern, particularly for cats. [The plant] is very damaging to the kidneys and can cause kidney failure. One lily could do it.”
What to do: Lilies are so dangerous to cats that cat owners should keep them out of the household completely, Cooper recommends. Poinsettias and holly are not considered deadly, but you might opt for something else to avoid the potential discomfort that comes with ingestion. (Check out the ASPCA’s directory of plants that are toxic to pets to look up your favorite flora.)
5. Homemade Flour Ornaments
Parents with kids might be familiar with a certain type of homemade ornament made from a combination of flour, water, and salt. But the finished product is a pet hazard. “Dogs are going to find those extremely tasty,” Wismer says. “There can be enough salt in the dough to cause salt poisoning, which can cause seizures.”
What to do: Don’t have the heart to throw them away? Be sure to hang such ornaments high up (and securely), where a dog can’t reach.
6. Salted Roads and Sidewalks
Rock salt, which is often strewn across streets and sidewalks to melt ice, can get wedged between pets’ paw pads, causing skin damage and irritation. (Read our review of the best rock salt and ice melts.)
What to do: Wipe down their paws with warm water and a cloth once you’re home from winter walks. Dog booties can also be helpful to protect against salt if your animal is taking a long walks or for small breeds that are less resistant to the elements, Cooper says.
7. Crowds of Visitors
A house party or big family gathering can mean arriving and departing guests unintentionally leaving doors and gates ajar—either to the yard or from the yard to the street.
8. Guests’ Belongings
A stack of new items—especially those potentially smelling like other pets—can seem like an invitation to your dog. But these can hide all kinds of potential dangers.
What to do: Ask guests to place their purses, bags, and coats in a secure, enclosed area. This prevents curious dogs and cats from gaining access to something hazardous, such as medication that might be stashed in someone’s purse or coat pocket, Wismer says.
9. Sweet Treats and Holiday Food
You probably already know that chocolate is a serious hazard and potentially lethal to pets. And it can be almost omnipresent during the holidays—along with all sorts of other rich food. Holiday dishes such as rich macaroni and cheese or fried items, while not deadly, can cause stomach upset in animals, from vomiting and diarrhea to dehydration, Kaplan warns.
What to do: Don’t put chocolate on a table or in a stocking that pets can reach, our experts say. Keep table food well out of reach and discourage guests from sharing with your pet. And take the garbage out often, so your pet does not break into a bagful of table scraps and toxic treats.
10. Festive Decorations
“Cats are fascinated by anything shiny,” Wismer says. While sparkly ribbons and tinsel make for great decorations, they can be dangerous for pets. Decorative popcorn isn’t toxic, but the string that holds it together can be problematic. And dogs that chew on plugged-in Christmas lights are at risk of electrocution, Cooper warns.
What to do: “If you have cats, I would forgo putting ribbons on any Christmas presents,” Wismer says. The same goes for tinsel, which can cut the pet’s intestinal tract or cause an obstruction. And if you have a cat who sees popcorn string as a fun thing to conquer, or a dog who likes to eat popcorn, skip this decorative item altogether. Ingesting the leftover string can cause gastrointestinal problems.
What to Do in an Emergency
Even the most careful planning can’t rid your house of all potential hazards. If you’re worried about a pet or see that yours has ingested something risky, remove the danger from their reach and call your vet right away, or go to your local emergency animal clinic.
In a pinch, try the 24-hour ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center (888-426-4435), which may charge a $65 consultation fee.