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Keeping Your Cat Safe During the Winter Holidays

By: Linda Perney

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Christmas, New Year's, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa – and all the celebrations they entail pose safety problems for pets. Aside from the overexcitement and confusion caused by too many guests, there are purely physical problems: A cat can singe a tail on a candle or can swallow tinsel and wind up with an intestinal blockage that may need surgery to repair.

"Overall, clinic visits at this time of year increase slightly," says Dr. Debra Primovic, a veterinarian at the Animal Emergency Clinic in St. Louis. "But we see more cases of toxicity, cases related to an animal's biting an electrical cord or cases related to a pet eating chocolate or table scraps and developing pancreatitis."

Here's how to keep a pet safe during this holiday season:

The Tree

  • The natural smell of a Christmas tree attracts pets. But remember that needles (even artificial ones) are indigestible. So, keep your pet away from the tree (using a baby gate in the doorway or low lattice fencing around the tree itself) and, since cats like to climb, secure it so he can't knock it over.

  • Artificial trees pose their own hazards. Small pieces of plastic or aluminum can break off and be swallowed, causing intestinal blockage or irritation to the mouth.

  • Don't use preservatives in the stand water. They can be toxic if consumed by a thirsty pet. Carefully cover the top of the stand with a tree skirt so your pet can't get to it.

  • Lights can get very hot - remove them from the lower branches of the tree so they won't burn a curious cat.

  • Tinsel is dangerous. Its sharp edges can cause cuts in the mouth. If a pet swallows it, it can block intestines, causing decreased appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, listlessness and weight loss. Treatment usually involves surgery.

  • Don't use edible ornaments or fragile, easily breakable glass decorations to trim the tree. Your pet may knock over the tree trying to get to them and your cat may decide they're toys and cut himself trying to play with them.

  • Don't use angel hair. It's made of spun glass and can cause irritation on contact.

  • Make sure electrical cords are out of reach, taped firmly to walls or floors. Chewing on wires may cause burns or pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs), which can be fatal.

  • Don't use wire ornament hooks that can easily snag an ear or a tail, or, if swallowed, can lodge in the throat or intestines. Instead, fashion loops of yarn, ribbons or light weight twine. And be careful not to leave any of that lying around.

    The Gifts

  • Check out the "toys" your pet or kids receive as gifts. A pet can swallow small parts; plastic items can be easily broken and swallowed, too.

  • Gift wrappings can be dangerous to a pet's health: String and ribbon can cause obstruction of the small bowel if swallowed. Cats, especially, love to eat the string used to tie up the turkey as it cooks.

  • Before throwing away large boxes or cartons, check the insides to make sure a kitten hasn't curled up inside.

    The Food

  • Alcohol and chocolate are toxic - keep drinks and sweets out of a pet's reach. Chocolate contains a substance called theobromine, and even a single ounce of pure chocolate can be lethal to a small cat. Dark and unsweetened baking chocolate are most dangerous. Symptoms of poisoning include vomiting, diarrhea, tremors, hyperactivity and seizures.

  • Turkey bones left in an accessible place are almost irresistible to pets, but they can lodge in an animal's throat or block the intestinal tract. Remove leftovers from the table and don't leave garbage where animals can get to it.

    Indoor Hazards

  • Certain plants are a menace to cats: Poinsettias irritate the stomach and eyes. Berries of the Jerusalem cherry are toxic, and cause pain, vomiting and diarrhea. Holly and mistletoe, amaryllis, chrysanthemum, rhododendron and winter broom as well as Christmas berry, cherry, pepper and rose can all cause problems to pets that ingest them. Note: Liquid potpourri can cause terrible burns in an animal's mouth should it be ingested.

  • Space heaters, wood-burning stoves and fireplaces can cause burns if animals get too close.

  • Candles are a great attraction for pets, but don't leave them alone in a room with a menorah or candelabra blazing-the swish of a tail can be disastrous.

    Outdoor Hazards

  • Even a small amount of antifreeze is extremely toxic. It has a sweet taste that attracts animals, but it can cause permanent kidney damage or death. The lethal dose is one teaspoon per two pounds of body weight. Don't let animals drink from puddles, and make sure to clean paws when a pet comes in from the outdoors.

  • Rock salt can irritate a pet's footpads. Make sure you rinse and dry them carefully. To soften them and prevent cracking, smear them with a small amount of petroleum jelly.

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