A cat poses with a winter-themed snow globe.

The Dangers of Snow Globes for Dogs and Cats

Snow globes are a tiny, picturesque version of our holiday aspirations. A cute house, falling snow, a perfectly trimmed tree, and a tiny snowman are typically the inhabitants of these miniature spheres of joy. On occasion, they play a Christmas carol when wound up, or gleam with illumination, fulfilling Bing Crosby’s promise of a white Christmas once turned upside down and given a gentle shake. However, what happens when your child (or crazy dog’s tail) accidentally knocks one of these decorations over? Would you assume the contents are just as harmless as the dreamlike scenery they portray?

Ethylene Glycol: Your Snow Globe’s Hidden Hazard

A little known fact is that many snow globes are not full of water, as one might anticipate, but actually filled with a substance known as ethylene glycol. It is difficult (if not impossible) to say which snow globes contain ethylene glycol and at what concentration, since “ingredients labels” aren’t included with these accessories. If a snow globe has broken in your home, it’s always better to play it safe. Gather up any broken glass which can be harmful if stepped on or ingested, and do your best to quickly mop up any excess liquid that has spilled from the globe. Ethylene glycol is sweet, which makes it an attractive snack to both dogs and cats alike, and it doesn’t take much for your pet to become ill from ingesting this substance.

The Symptoms of Ethylene Glycol Poisoning

Ethylene glycol (EG) is used not only in snow globes, but also in antifreeze (which is the most common route of exposure). EG itself is not the problem, but once EG is ingested, it is metabolized into many toxic by-products, most notably oxalic acid.This binds to calcium, creating harmful crystals which can lead to kidney injury and possible kidney failure. Clinical signs are seen almost immediately, including nausea, vomiting, extreme lethargy/sedation, and a wobbly gait (ataxia). The most frightening feature of EG toxicity is that pets can seem somewhat normal after the initial clinical signs begin to wear off, especially if a small amount is ingested. Signs of renal failure can take up to 12 hours to manifest in a cat and as long as 72 hours in a dog. So, if there is any concern that your pet was exposed to EG, whether from a small amount in a snow globe or a larger amount of straight antifreeze from the garage, do not hesitate to seek medical attention. Once signs of renal failure have developed, the effects can be permanent. Since EG is absorbed so rapidly and can cause neurologic side effects, inducing emesis is not successful or even recommended the majority of the time.

Treatment Measures for Ethylene Glycol Poisoning

Since EG toxicity is very serious and has the potential to be life threatening, emergency care is not an option, but a necessity. There is no viable over-the-counter or at home remedy for this toxicity. Pets are usually treated with either IV ethanol or a medication called fomepizole (4MP). 4MP can be very expensive and pets that are severely affected by EG often require 24-hour intensive care. If anuric renal failure is suspected or confirmed, the only treatment is dialysis, which is only available at specialty and referral hospitals.

The takeaway message is not to take any chances if you suspect your pet has been exposed to EG. It acts rapidly, the effects are severe, and treatment can be expensive. While it is generally accepted that the antifreeze in your garage contains this dangerous chemical, it is not widely known that your Holiday decorations can be just as dangerous. Be aware if one happens to fall, and waste no time cleaning up the mess! Unlike a few Christmas crumbs, this is one holiday spill you do not want the dog’s help cleaning up. Keep them safe this holiday season, and away from spilled snow globes.