Ask a Vet: The Top 7 Holiday Health Hazards for Dogs

Don't bring seasonal gloom down upon on your canine friend -- follow my guide for a safe season.


Dr. Eric “Bad News” Barchas is here to try to ruin yet another holiday with a post about the health hazards that the winter festivities pose to your dog. The holidays needn’t be especially dangerous, as long as you follow some basic tips and guidelines with regard to your dog’s safety and health.

1. Chocolate

Consumption of chocolate is, by a mile, the No. 1 holiday-related cause of canines coming to my office. Chocolate is everywhere during the holidays, and let me assure you that the overwhelming majority of dogs are bona fide chocoholics. They love the stuff, and they can smell it from 50 yards away. The true menace is chocolate that has been gift wrapped. Humans unknowingly place wrapped chocolate under the tree. The dog knows exactly what’s in the package, and helps himself as soon as the owner’s back is turned. I see the aftermath all the time. Not only does this place the dog at risk of chocolate toxicity, it also is a waste of a gift. The good news is that chocolate toxicity is rarely fatal when treated. However, the trend towards ever darker and stronger chocolates places dogs at increasing risk. Also, don’t forget that chocolate often coats other potential toxins such as macadamia nuts and raisins.

There are many possible solutions to the chocolate problem. My personal favorite is to open gifts early, but for some people that spoils the fun of Christmas morning. If you’re among them, consider allowing your dog to sniff the package as part of the standard pre-opening inspection of all gifts (which also includes shaking the package and studying the card). If the dog shows too much interest, then the package might require special care. Another, more Scrooge-ish tactic is simply to bar Fido’s access to the living room by closing the door. And here’s a reminder: When giving gifts to dog owners, don’t give wrapped chocolate.

2. Untended platters of food

Last week Denise and I had guests over. Our pal Buster greeted the family as they arrived. Then, as everyone said hello to one another, Buster took advantage of the distraction to help himself to several pieces of salami from the cheese tray. It would have been the perfect crime if he were a true Labrador who swallows without chewing, but he was busted as a result of his smacking lips.

Buster was unharmed, and fortunately the guests were still willing to snack on the cheese tray. However, a combination of parties, special meals, and guests presents a singular holiday pattern, which sets dogs up for massive dietary indiscretion. I have treated dogs that have consumed entire turkeys, whole hams, and other varied and sundry feasts from the table or the trash. Some of these dogs have developed severe gastrotintestinal upset. Others have come down with pancreatitis and hemorrhagic gastroenteritis, both of which are potentially life threatening. Keep an eye on the dog, the food, and the trash during special meals.

3. Inedible holiday items — which the dog eats

I also see an uptick in gastrointestinal foreign bodies during the holiday season. In case you didn’t already know, dogs are silly creatures and they eat the darnedest things. I have treated dogs for eating ornaments, wrapping paper, ribbons, and all other manner of holiday-related items. My personal favorite was the Labrador (of course) puppy who consumed an entire string of Christmas lights. Believe it or not, the lights passed through his GI system and he did not require surgery.

4. Escalators

If you’re tempted to take your dog shopping, or if you are traveling for the holidays and heading to the airport with your dog, beware of escalators and moving sidewalks. Dogs have no business riding these things, ever. They fail to dismount properly with alarming frequency. When dogs’ feet get caught in escalators, the effect is similar to getting caught in a meat grinder. Enough said.

5. Outdoor dangers

Short days and long nights mean more night walks, which can mean a higher chance of your dog getting lost or suffering from hypothermia. Use a proper leash and harness and a winter jacket as needed. I also strongly recommend lighting your dog at night. I have found that blinking LED bike lights tend to be more durable than the canine-specific lights from the pet store.

6. Dental disease, the year-round hazard

The nasty bacteria that cause canine dental disease do not take time off for Christmas. How, you might ask, do the holidays pose a special dental disease hazard to dogs? They don’t. But since the new year is just around the corner, why not resolve to brush your best friend’s teeth every day? It is the simplest thing you can do to help ensure his or her good health in the future.

7. Poinsettia and mistletoe

And finally, no holiday discussion about dogs would be complete without the obligatory mention of poinsettia and mistletoe. When I was in vet school, everyone believed these two plants were downright dangerous and grapes were healthy treats for dogs. Since then things have turned around almost 180 degrees. Nowadays we believe that poinsettia and mistletoe are only mildly toxic, but grape or raisin ingestion may lead to fatal kidney failure in susceptible individuals. Maybe in the future the toxicologists will change their minds again, but for now you needn’t worry too intensely about these two holiday plants (although they are not healthy treats, and dogs should not be allowed to consume them). However, a toxicologist recently told me, and I quote, “there is no safe dose of grapes or raisins in dogs.”

Happy holidays to all!

Read more about dog safety on Dogster:

Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)

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