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Holiday Health Issues for Dogs — Know the Dangers and Fixes

Try these tips and fixes for those less-than-jolly health “gifts” the holidays serve up.

Heather Marcoux  |  Dec 17th 2018


The holidays are a time of celebration, enthusiastic gift giving and (if we’re being honest) overindulgence for many humans. And because we love our dogs, it’s totally natural to want to include them in our festivities, but making too merry can make a dog sick.

According to Embrace Pet Insurance, the holidays coincide with an annual increase of claims for pancreatitis, gastroenteritis and intoxication, just to name a few. If you want your dog to be in good shape for the New Year, keep your holiday celebration canine-friendly by following these tips and fixes.

1. Don’t share human holiday treats with your dog

A hungry dog eyeing a holiday table.

Don’t feed your dog from the table — and make sure he can’t help himself, either! Photography ©Terran Bayer | AnimalHaus Media.

Flames dancing in the hearth may put you in the holiday spirit, but an inflamed pancreas, also known as pancreatitis, will put your dog in pain and danger.

Symptoms include decreased appetite, nausea, vomiting and lethargy. The really sad part is, humans are a major cause of pancreatitis around the holidays.

“Everybody wants to make their dog happy at the holidays and so they want to feed them something and, oftentimes, it comes from the dinner table. It’s too rich, and it gives them an upset tummy or pancreatitis sometimes,” explains Dr. Gwen Jeun, the current president of the Ontario Veterinary
Medical Association.

How to indulge your dog on the holidays — in a healthy way

Dr. Jeun says the best holiday feast for a dog is whatever dog food they usually eat. While human foods like cheese or turkey skin are often the cause of an episode of pancreatitis, even a switch from one dog food to another can be problematic, Dr. Jeun says.

She recalls one Boxing Day she spent with a dog whose Christmas presents included a doggie turkey dinner in a can … that ended up coming with a side of pancreatitis.

Luckily, Dr. Jeun helped the dog make it through, and the story also lives on as a reminder that switching up the canine menu isn’t the gift we humans imagine it to be.

What do you do if your dog gets pancreatitis?

If your dog does get pancreatitis, what do you do? If your dog is panting, shaking, reluctant to eat, vomiting or experiencing diarrhea, don’t let anyone offer more table scraps or even dog food, and get your pooch to the veterinarian as soon as you can. The veterinarian can tell you if it’s pancreatitis or something else, and provide medications for vomiting and pain, plus intravenous fluids if necessary.

2. Watch the table, the turkey and the trash

Of course, the increase in pancreatitis cases over the holiday season isn’t just due to what we humans are feeding our dogs, but also what they feed themselves if given the chance, and they do have so many tempting chances at this time of year.

“We certainly see a lot of dietary indiscretion around the holidays,” says Dr. Jen Kasten, DVM, who serves as the Technical Services Veterinarian for Tomlyn Veterinary Science.

Sometimes it’s dogs raiding the garbage or “cleaning up” food dropped at the dinner table, she says. Other times, people will “carve their turkey and then walk away, and the dog thinks, ‘Oh, that’s a tasty snack up on the counter, let me go grab it,” Dr. Kasten explains, noting that in either case, the ingestion of bones can lead to medical emergencies, like a gastrointestinal obstruction (a blockage in the digestive tract).

If a bone is causing a blockage in a dog’s body, symptoms can include vomiting, diarrhea and a lack of appetite. Sometimes, dogs experiencing gastrointestinal obstructions do require surgery to get the bone out. Last year Embrace Pet Insurance received $33,000 worth of claims due to dogs ingesting foreign bodies (including bones).

Blockages aren’t the only issues that getting into the turkey can lead to. Dietary indiscretion can cause gastroenteritis, which, like pancreatitis, can be life-threatening. Repeated vomiting or diarrhea can be symptoms of gastroenteritis or pancreatitis, or they can be the dog’s whole diagnosis. One loose stool isn’t a big deal, but prolonged diarrhea or vomiting can lead to deadly dehydration, so it’s best to take your pup to the vet quickly.

How to keep your dog away from toxic or potentially unhealthy food

If you know your pooch likely can’t resist the temptation of a carved turkey, keep him out of the kitchen or away from the dining room while the bird is on the platter. A dog gate might be your best bet if your thresholds allow for one. If you’ve got a more open floor plan, you may want to put your pooch in another room or have adult family members take turns watching him closely and keeping him entertained.

Similarly, make sure gifts containing food (like boxes of fancy chocolates) aren’t wrapped and placed under the tree or left in stockings. Store them someplace high and out of your dog’s reach until Christmas morning, and don’t leave them out after unwrapping.

What do you do if your dog eats something he shouldn’t?

If your dog does sneak into something he wasn’t supposed to, don’t panic. Call your vet or the closest emergency vet to find out what action you need to take and if you should take him in. If you’re not familiar with emergency veterinarian services in your area, take a minute before the holidays to learn the on-call number and the location and put it on an easily accessible place, like your refrigerator. You can also call the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center phone number at 888-426-4435 (a consultation fee may be charged).

3. Avoid gifting bones

A dog unwrapping or biting a gift.

Avoid gifting bones this holiday season. Photography ©Redphotographer | Getty Image.

Both Dr. Kasten and Dr. Jeun say it’s not just the bones in the garbage bag, but bones in gift bags, too, that dog lovers should be mindful of. The vets suggest humans avoid giving bones as gifts to their dog, or loved ones’ dogs, as sometimes the 5-dollar bone or antler Aunt Sarah left under the tree for Spot can lead to cracked teeth and a big dental bill (and of course can cause those blockages mentioned earlier).

Dr. Jeun suggests, for young dogs, a pair of winter booties they can be trained to wear in the snow might be a better gift and that a soft new dog bed is always jolly good for dogs of any age.

When to head to the vet

If you see the following behaviors in your pup, it’s time to head to the vet. The first sign of a cracked tooth is often a yelp or cry when your dog is busy with his bone. You might see some bleeding, too. If you don’t notice these signs right away, your dog might start avoiding his food or chewing with only one side of his mouth. Depending on the severity of the crack, you may be referred to a veterinary dentist.

4. Deal with stress

The holidays can be stressful for humans and, because they have even less control over the chaos then we do, this time of year can be even more trying for pets. Stress can lead to colitis (the most obvious symptom of which is diarrhea), gastroenteritis (which also involves a lot of vomiting and diarrhea) and exacerbate other health issues, so taking steps to reduce interruptions to your dog’s routine should remain a top priority during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.

Keep the walk routine as stable as the menu, and make sure your pup has a safe place to go if you’re going to be having guests in and out of the house. For dogs who need a little extra help chilling out, Dr. Kasten recommends dog treats with tryptophan and ginger.

Tips to reduce holiday stress in dogs

To reduce your dog’s holiday stress, start with reducing your own. According to Jill Breitner, author of the Dog Decoder Smartphone App, it’s not as much the addition of indoor trees and decorations that stress our dogs out at home during the holidays, but how the humans are feeling and how we’re interacting with each other.

“Any time there’s an environmental change, dogs will respond,” Jill tells Dogster. “But what happens over the holidays is, people are stressed.”

Being around humans who are arguing with each other can stress a dog out and even lead to physical symptoms. Behavioral changes in your dog can be the first sign that something’s wrong, even before vomiting or loose stools.

“Just hiding behind the couch and kind of peering out with some facial tension, with their ears back and down and panting might be a sign of pain,” Jill explains.

How to get your dog ready for company

If your dog does not do well with company, but you are planning to have people over, Jill suggests getting your pooch ready for the big day a couple days in advance by introducing him to the room he may stay in by himself during the festivities. She cautions against leaving a dog alone in a separate room if he’s not used to it (as that can actually cause stress) but says for some dogs who have had the opportunity to get accustomed to it, being away from a large family gathering in their own safe space is preferable.

Keep your dog engaged

Our dogs don’t need a wedge of brie to know that we love them, but they may need a little extra attention during the holidays, especially as our attention gets spread thin. Jill suggests making sure we exercise our dogs before any big holiday events (whether they’ll be attending or not).

What to do if you have to leave your dog home alone

If you’re going to have a late night at a holiday party, make sure your dog is going to be comfortable before you go. Set up an automatic feeder to serve his food, and if you think you’ll be getting home late, have a pet sitter or dog walker swing by to check on your pup.

How to handle boredom or depression in dogs

If your dog seems bored or depressed, it may be a sign that his routine has been sent out of whack by your holiday plans. Try to schedule as many walks and outings over the holidays as you do on any regular day to make sure that your dog gets the exercise and attention he’s used to.

Taking a stroll around the neighborhood to check out the light displays or bringing your dog outside to make a snowman are great ways to include your dog in holiday activities.

If your pup hasn’t had as much of your time as he normally would lately, consider a doggie date night and snuggle up on the couch in front of a festive film. Just don’t share the salted, buttered popcorn.

Top holiday health humbugs

A dog in a Santa outfit.

What are some of the biggest insurance claims this time of year? Photography Terran Bayer | AnimalHaus Media.

Last December Embrace Pet Insurance saw:

  • $10,000 worth of claims for chocolate poisoning
  • $12,000 for gastroenteritis
  • $23,000 for vomiting and diarrhea

So look up and write down the information for the nearest emergency vet clinic, especially if you and your dog are away from home this holiday season. Also, don’t keep chocolate (especially the sugar-free kind with xylitol) where your pup can reach it. And remember, there is no wrapping paper stronger than a dog’s nose.

Thumbnail: Photography by Charlotte Reeves Photography.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Dogster magazine. Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? Subscribe now to get Dogster magazine delivered straight to you!

About the author:

Heather Marcoux is a freelance writer who loves the holidays almost as much as she loves her dogs, GhostBuster and Marshmallow. They won’t be getting cheese this Christmas. You can see them pouting over that on Instagram, where they are known as @ghostpets.

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