Christmas is an exciting time for all – and that includes our four-legged friends. But it can also be a dangerous time if we’re not hot on what’s good and bad for our pets’ health.
2020 saw adoptions and sales of pets soar thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, with more and more people spending time at home and seeing it as the perfect occasion to get a new dog or cat.
This means that lots of people will be celebrating their first Christmas with a brand new pet – and if you’re not up-to-speed on the dangers that festive foods and traditions could pose, it could prove to be a Christmas to forget.
Dr Samantha Butler-Davies, a vet and veterinary clinical services manager at Vets4Pets, explains: “With so many people in the UK having decided to add a pet to their family during lockdown I’m sure for many this will be their first time owning a pet.
“We therefore wanted to make sure everyone knows the key dos and don’ts for pets during the festive season, so owners can be assured that they can enjoy a relaxing and happy Christmas with their family, without any surprise emergency visits to their vet.”
There was a rise in gastro-related queries and claims over the festive period last year, according to digital pet insurance company Waggel – a result of dogs or cats consuming the wrong foods or accidentally eating festive decorations.
Vets Now are bracing themselves for an 880% rise in emergency admissions this Christmas due to the fact so many people have acquired new pets during lockdown. A spokesperson said they see more cases of raisin toxicity on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day each year – particularly from pooches who ate mince pies left out for Santa.
A Waggel spokesperson and Vet4Pets’ Dr Butler-Davies walk us through some of the hidden dangers that the festive period brings.
Christmas foods that are poisonous to pets
There are quite a few foods that disagree with both cats and dogs. Keep in mind that if your pet eats any of the below, they’ll need to see a vet.
Chocolate is dangerous for pets because it includes a chemical called theobromine, which can’t easily be metabolised, making it potentially poisonous. Dark chocolate is especially problematic.
So if you do have pets, it’s best to put tree chocolates on the highest branches of your Christmas tree (or just don’t put them out this year and eat them instead). You should also be wary of any gifts that contain chocolate, as keeping these under the tree basically acts as an open invitation to dive in.
“Your pet will be able to sniff chocolate through any wrapping so to make sure they can’t get their paws on them, place these out of reach and somewhere other than under the tree,” says Waggel’s spokesperson.
You might want to give your pooch a nice turkey leg to chomp on while you all sit down to eat your roast, but any meat with bones in it can either cause your pet to choke or can splinter and cause issues when ingested.
Onions and garlic
Thiosulphate is an ingredient found in onions and garlic, which is toxic to pets, says Waggel’s spokesperson. “If eaten, it can cause an upset stomach and can also put them at risk of developing a condition called haemolytic anaemia which can cause damage to the red blood cells.” So yes, that means keeping the stuffing and onion gravy away from furry paws too.
Salty or fatty foods
You might think sausages, ham or a little bit of bacon is safe, but because they all have a high fat and salt content, they can actually cause an upset stomach. And in severe cases, consuming these foods can cause pancreatitis, which can make pets extremely poorly.
Christmas pudding and mince pies
Anything that contains raisins, currants or grapes is extremely toxic to cats and dogs – even if your pet consumes as little as one raisin, it can be dangerous. If eaten, you should consult your vet straight away.
These have a high fat and salt content, which can cause stomach upset or even choking. Watch out for macadamia nuts in particular, which can be toxic when consumed by dogs and cats.
Keep the booze out of reach of prying paws. If your pet consumes alcohol, they might react in a similar way to a human, becoming wobbly or drowsy, and in some cases, wanting all the fuss. But in severe cases, your pet’s body temperature might drop and they could experience low blood sugar and fall into a coma.
Lots of the sweets and treats you may have lying around the house at Christmas will contain artificial sweeteners such as xylitol, which can be toxic to pets. It can cause hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar levels) in dogs.
So which foods are safe, then?
Your normal pet food is the best thing to feed your pet during the Christmas season, as even small changes in diet can cause an upset stomach. However if you do want to give your pet a treat, there are some foods that are perfectly safe to give, says Waggel’s spokesperson.
These include: dog- or cat-specific chocolate, biscuits and treats (bought from pet stores); boiled or steamed vegetables including peas, broccoli, green beans, carrots and sweet potatoes (just make sure there is no added salt or butter, and that they are cut into small chunks); and lean parts of white meat (without any sauces, glazes or oils on them).
Beware seasonal plants
They might look pretty to you, but there are plenty of festive plants that can be harmful to pets – and you probably didn’t even realise it. You should be mindful of poinsettias, Christmas tree pine needles, holly, mistletoe and conkers or acorns. All of these can cause irritation, stomach issues and are a choking hazard. Lilies are also highly toxic to both cats and dogs.
Keep an eye on your Christmas tree
If it looks beautiful to you, you can bet it’s also pretty intriguing to your new pet. “Christmas trees are a key centrepiece in most family homes over the festive season, but they can be a potential hazard,” says Dr Butler-Davies.
“Cats love to climb trees, so it is key that cat owners make sure to fully catproof their tree, ensuring it is well-anchored and keeping all the decorations securely fastened higher up and towards the centre of the tree, so they are less easily accessible.”
She says most cats dislike the sensation of tinfoil on their claws, so you could try wrapping tinfoil around the base of the tree to deter them. And make sure any water in the tree base is kept covered, so no inquisitive pets take a drink.
Christmas decorations can also potentially be hazardous. “Pets love to play and chew anything they can get their paws on,” says Waggel’s spokesperson. “If they swallow decorations which are lying around, they could cause choking and may need to be surgically removed.”
Some other things to be mindful of: antifreeze is highly toxic to pets so make sure yours is securely stored away after you’ve used it, and salt and grit on the pavement and roads can cause irritation to the pads on dogs’ paws, says Waggel’s spokesperson, so make sure to wipe their feet after taking them out for a walk.
Keep the stress levels down
Having people over can be exciting for your pets – but it can also be a stressor. So it’s important to keep an eye on any abnormal behaviour.
“A new issue that many pets will have to get accustomed to this year, is potentially sharing their home with multiple new guests for the first time,” says Dr Butler-Davies.
Socialisation is a crucial stage in development for puppies and kittens, and normally by the time a person collects a new pet, breeders will have begun socialisation by handling them, letting them see people of different ages and appearances, including children, and introducing them to other animal species.
However, continued contact this year has been difficult to keep up during the national and local lockdowns, with many pets only having limited interaction with new people and experiences.
“Therefore, if people are going to enjoy a socially distanced Christmas gathering this year, it is crucial that they ensure their pet is calm and relaxed,” says Dr Butler-Davies. “The easiest way to achieve this is to create a cosy den with their favourite toys in a quiet area of the house that they can escape to.”
Waggel’s spokesperson also recommends using calming products such as Adaptil, Feliway, Zylkene and Calmex – “all of which are completely safe and will help keep your pets relaxed during this busy time.”