I wrote this piece four years ago and I feel it bears reprinting.
’Tis the season and the big day is almost here. Houses are decorated, Christmas trees are dressed and our companions are walking around the house thinking about all the neat stuff there is to play with. There are a few reasons to avoid such interaction, not the least of which is the fact that some degree of destruction might be involved.
It is natural for our companions to be curious about the wrappings and ribbon on packages, the lights on the tree, the water bowl beneath the tree, the tinsel hanging from it ... the list goes on. I thought it appropriate to share some precautions with you concerning potential problems brought on by this natural curiosity possessed by many of our companions and their interactions as a result. I am sure many of you are aware of these potential hazards but it always bears reminding.
We are taught in veterinary school that the water used in Christmas tree bases can be toxic to our companions. I personally have never seen a case of Christmas tree water toxicity but I certainly have heard of such cases. Do not let your companion drink that stuff! This includes dogs, cats and rabbits or for that matter any species of companion that might have access.
One potential hazard I have seen reach that potential is the Christmas tree lights. I have seen a handful of cases where a companion has chewed on the cord interconnecting the lights resulting in electrical shock and in two cases I recall, both cats, electrocution resulted. Curiously, I have known many rabbits to chew on electrical cords without incidence. That said, I would advise no companion be allowed access to electrical cords of any kind.
Package wrapping if swallowed can result in obstruction of the digestive tract. I have noted this in cats, dogs and rabbits and these cases can often result in the need for surgery to remove the wrapping. This is especially the case with the plastic-based wrapping.
The ribbon used to wrap up packages can present problems as well. A piece of ribbon of significant length when swallowed can become what we term a “string foreign body” within a companion’s digestive tract. One end of the ribbon can adhere to a section of bowel wall up closer to the stomach while the other end can move down the tract to a farther point and then adhere. With the normal contracting of the intestinal tract, the ribbon will cause the intestine to accordion into itself, effectively blocking the tract. This condition is entirely fatal if not addressed immediately as the intestine becomes devitalized as the blood flow is blocked due to the folding up of the intestine cause by the ribbon. Surgery is the only treatment. Tinsel hanging from the tree can cause the same problem and seems to be highly attractive especially to cats.
The final hazard I wish to point out is best observed by glancing in the mirror. That’s right, it is us! Sometimes we think we are being kind to our companions by giving them other than their appropriate diet – think “people food.” In reality we could be putting them at risk for health problems. There are certain foods that are outright toxic to our companions – chocolate for example is toxic to dogs – while other foods can cause problems in different ways. There can be long-term issues such as obesity and short term problems as well.
In my experience, high fat human foods are the biggest culprit and the holiday season certainly brings around plenty of those. Dogs tend to be the more common companions affected by their caretaker’s inappropriate generosity with such food items. Meats in my experience are the biggest culprit. When a dog is fed a piece of steak or the holiday roast, it usually represents some of the sections that we ourselves might not be eating, usually this involves fat. I can’t tell you how often I have cringed when I have heard a client tell me they are routinely pouring bacon grease on their dog’s food. This load of fat can lead to pancreatitis in our companions and in a worse case scenario, pancreatitis can be fatal, even with aggressive medical therapy. Certainly many companions are fed what I consider to be inappropriate foods and do not have problems, but I am a firm believer in the question: “Why take the chance?”
Hopefully you will have no problems with your companions this holiday season and I encourage everyone blessed with a special companion to take some time to reflect on how truly special these creatures are. The unconditional love they bring is unique and the human animal bond that forms as a result is priceless. It is one of the great blessings in my life to be able to share in these wonderful relationships as my life’s work. Merry Christmas to all and that of course includes those four legged friends that can’t read these words.
Jeff Kahler is a veterinarian in Modesto. Questions can be submitted to Your Pet in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352.