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4 Holiday Hazards I Have Learned to Avoid With My Dogs

We've had close calls with xylitol, caffeine, and even holiday sights and sounds. Here's how you can stay away from these dangerous situations.

Marybeth Bittel  |  Dec 16th 2015


The holidays are merry and bright, but they also can be more than a little stressful, especially when too many outspoken family members are together a little too long. The list of humorous “toxic holiday” movies is lengthy indeed: Home for the Holidays, The Ref, Nothing Like the Holidays, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and more. Yet the holidays can also be toxic for our pets — and it’s definitely no laughing matter.

As pet lovers, we’ve all heard plenty about the dangers of poinsettia plants and certain holiday foods like chocolate. Just to quickly reiterate, chocolate — in any form— is incredibly dangerous for dogs and cats. It contains both caffeine and a compound called theobromine, both of which are difficult for our furry friends to process. The darker the chocolate, the more serious the possible damage. So put this confection at the top of your “naughty” list … and store it way at the top of something tall or in an area well-secured.

Puppy with chocolate by Shutterstock.

Puppy with chocolate by Shutterstock.

But most importantly, recognize that the “naughty” list goes on. There are plenty of ingredients, special effects, and general household happenings that can wreak holiday havoc with canine well-being. In my house, we’ve had so many pets over the decades that we’ve endured near-miss encounters with several of these hazards. You could say we learned the hard way … very gradually, over time. But boy, did we learn well. Here are a few firsthand, not-so-festive frights we’ve experienced. Hopefully, others can learn from these examples, so that more sweet pups can steer clear of behavioral meltdowns and frantic trips to the emergency vet this holiday season!

1. Chewing gum: Sparky

Sparky_Gum

Gum is certainly no sweet treat when it comes to our canines — and fortunately Sparky only got a split-second taste. (Photos courtesy of Marybeth Bittel)

This was years ago, but I remember like it was yesterday. We were headed out to a holiday party, and two teenaged cousins were staying home with our dogs to watch holiday movies. “Okay ladies,” we admonished several times as we walked out the door, “all the chocolate stays locked away. Same goes for raisins — remember, those can cause kidney damage.” We congratulated ourselves on being thorough, and both girls heeded our warnings. Unfortunately, we forgot all about the chewing gum. The girls eventually nodded off during Meet Me in Saint Louis, and Sparky snuffled inside someone’s purse to discover a pack of peppermint Trident.

Thank goodness we walked into the house almost simultaneously and noticed him chomping away. We got lucky that day, because holiday candies and chewing gum often contain xylitol. Once this non-caloric sweetener enters a dog’s bloodstream, it can prompt an immediate, life-threatening drop in blood sugar levels. Some dogs expire before they can even reach the emergency clinic. Fortunately, we were able to wrestle the gum from Sparky’s mouth almost immediately. Definitely, keep this confection away from your canine.

2. Coffee and flavored tea packets: Beethoven

Beethoven_Caffeine

Highly intelligent pups like Beethoven can get curious, so they need to be monitored with extra care as gifts and goodies arrive. (Photos courtesy of Marybeth Bittel)

I grew up with a beloved Airedale Terrier named Beethoven who was remarkable in every way. In fact, one afternoon, he figured out how to unwrap commercial packaging using only his nose. We were outside shoveling for a matter of minutes … and by the time we came inside, Beethoven had ingested two of the sweet-smelling, flavored coffee and tea packets that sat shrink-wrapped in a box atop the kitchen counter.

Miraculously — and this only registered dimly, as we hustled out the door to the emergency vet — our smart boy had somehow managed to leave the outer box completely un-mangled, removing only the plastic. But our amazement was overshadowed by extreme concern because the caffeine had revved up Beethoven’s heart rate. Fortunately, the vets managed to get this under control. But take it from me … dogs and caffeine do not mix. And by the way — while you’re hiding your caffeinated beverages, don’t forget to conceal the flavored coffee syrups, too. These often contain alcohols and xylitol (see above), making them doubly dangerous for our cherished pups.

3. Company/doorbell: Maizy

Maizy_Doorbell

Shy pups like Maizy can easily experience holiday overload … even during quietly serene family gatherings. Set up a secure sanctuary, away from the action. (Photos courtesy of Marybeth Bittel)

When we initially rescued Maizy, we were well aware that her puppy mill past made her shy and skittish. But by Christmas of our first year together, she’d met the whole family and seemed pretty at ease with everyone. So we never guessed that a quiet holiday dinner at home would prompt a near-meltdown. Unfortunately, between the doorbell and the added activity, Maizy went into overload.

It took us nearly 20 minutes to find her, because she’d crawled into a tiny corner beneath the bed. Since that not-so-merry learning experience, we’ve invested in a calming Thundershirt, started using calming scents and sounds, and experimented with other anxiety-soothing techniques. We’re also much more respectful of Maizy’s needs and temperament. She now has a comfy crate in a secluded area of the house — and she’s often happiest lounging with favorite toys in this “safe zone” when even understated holiday gatherings take place.

4. Holiday sound effects and flashing lights: Grant

Grant_LightsNoises

Even dogs who act courageous — like our cute and comically feisty Grant — can harbor fears and insecurities that are triggered by common holiday sights and sounds. (Photos courtesy of Marybeth Bittel)

Some dogs put on a convincing front, and Grant is the perfect example. Horribly abused in a series of environments before we adopted him, feisty Grant seemed full of assertive bluster. But as we learned through years of behavioral work, this tendency toward take-charge boldness masked an insecure heart filled with fear.

Grant has reacted to some pretty unpredictable things — including twinkly holiday lights. It’s sometimes easy to forget that canine hearing is so much stronger than human hearing … and that many holiday decorations emit a low buzzing sound that certain dogs find terrifying. Grant is squarely in this category, which we realized when he became repeatedly frozen with fear in front of a specific neighbor’s house. Incessant light-flashing may also remind him of fireworks, his other arch-nemesis in the fear department. Swaddling helps immensely … and, of course, we now avoid certain holiday displays altogether.

Have you experienced near-miss holiday mishaps that shape the way you and your pets approach this festive time of year? Share your insights and solutions below!

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About the author: Marybeth Bittel is a freelance writer who lives in the Midwest with her wonderful husband, her crazy rescue dog Grant, and her level-headed rescue dog Maizy – all of them Heinz 57 mixed breed types. Marybeth identifies as mostly Italian, so she enjoys feeding family, friends and furkids almost as much as Grant and Maizy enjoy eating. She’s also a marketing communications consultant and former marketing/PR exec. Connect with her on LinkedIn or — to see her latest pet pics (and be careful what you wish for here) — check out her family Instagram feed.