Pets and holidays: A recipe for disaster?

You can take steps to prevent your pet from ingesting holiday decorations.

You can take steps to prevent your pet from ingesting holiday decorations.Kseniya Ovchinnikova/Moment RF/Getty Images

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For a dog or cat, the holidays are full of bright, shiny fun. Tinsel dangles from a tall invader in the living room, outfitted with branches just made for climbing. Twinkling lights bounce off fragile ornaments, which often look just like balls made for a dog’s mouth. One crunch, however, and shards might cause injury.

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“Think about it — to your cat and dog that tree is an invitation to a party. It’s filled with dangling ornaments that look an awful lot like the balls we give them to play with,” said Holly Sizemore, chief mission officer for Best Friends Animal Society, a nonprofit, no-kill sanctuary for homeless animals that provides adoption, education, and spay and neuter services.

Don’t forget ribbon — yards of color cascading over gift boxes, which to cats are ready-made forts offering plenty of hiding places. Without watchful human eyes, furry friends can get into trouble, especially if they are already known troublemakers such as Reniji, a 15-year-old Maine coon mix with four white paws.

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“Oh, he never learns,” owner Cheryl Padgett told me via text. “He has eaten curtain sheers, plastic or straw bristles on brooms, and will chew on any kind of mesh. And he will try to eat any plant, real or artificial.”

Reniji was 2 years old at the time of “The Great Curling Ribbon Debacle” in which he “inhaled about a foot off a balloon I brought home from work in 30 seconds,” Padgett said. Fortunately, an endoscopy found no ribbons entangled in his intestines.

“He was fine,” she said. Her pocketbook was not — the vet bill came to $1,100.

Ingesting decorations is a common holiday scenario that can have dangerous consequences, said Dr. Dana Varble, chief veterinary officer for the North American Veterinary Community, a nonprofit organization that provides support and professional development for the global veterinary health care community.

“Tinsel, garland, and all that curling ribbon on packages, even fabric ribbons, cats and dogs cannot break down any of that as part of their digestion,” Varble said. “And even if the material doesn’t get stuck, it can cause a lot of damage passing through — upset stomach, vomiting and diarrhea.”

Reniji, a 15-year-old Maine coon mix, has pica, an urge to eat items that aren't food and don't have any nutritional value.

Reniji, a 15-year-old Maine coon mix, has pica, an urge to eat items that aren’t food and don’t have any nutritional value.Cheryl Padgett

It’s not just cats that get in trouble, she said. “I saw a dog that ate an entire Christmas wreath. It did not end well. He had to have surgery. So, you have to be so incredibly confident that your pets are not going to eat your decorations.

“Otherwise, they need to be up out of reach of dogs and tucked in closets away from the cat. Even the Christmas tree needs to be in an area where they can’t decide that it’s a fun tree to climb.”

But you can’t blame the dog or cat, she adds, because such behavior is all part of being a predator.

“Dogs and cats are primed to chase and pounce, and cats use their claws to grab, and at the end of that predator behavior they’re programmed to ingest it, eat it,” Varble said. “That’s how they win the game against ribbon, the game against wire and the game against your Christmas ornaments.”

Toxic plants and food

There are other holiday dangers for your pets as well. Many flowers, plants and foods favored at the holidays are dangerous to cats or dogs or both, Varble said.


Buy plastic mats — the type with spikes meant to go under an office chair — and put them upside down around the tree.
“The pokey ends are not enough to cause damage or cut their feet, but it’s enough to make them go ‘I don’t want to be on top of that,’” said the North American Veterinary Community’s Dr. Dana Varble.

“Occasionally, this time of year someone will get some very pretty red and white lily arrangements or amaryllis bulbs,” she said. “Lilies are extremely toxic to cats – the leaves, the stems, the pollen from the stamen in middle of those lilies — they can cause kidney failure and even death in cats.”

Add poinsettias, mistletoe and holly to the list of toxic holiday flowers, “so those should also always be kept on high surfaces and out of reach,” Sizemore said.

“Chocolate is very toxic to dogs and foods like grapes, onions, poultry bones and any kind of alcohol should be kept away from your pet,” Sizemore added. “Even the water in a real tree can grow bacteria, and if a cat drinks it, that can be harmful.”

For reference, The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, provides a hotline for pet poisoning. In 2022, the society helped 400,000 animals, nearly a 5% increase over 2021.

Over-the-counter human medications led the list of top poisons in 2022, the ASPCA announced, followed by food poisoning from protein bars, products with the artificial sweetener xylitol, grapes, raisins and other toxic foods. Prescription medications for people were the third most common poison.

A dog who sleeps at the end of the bed with their face toward the door might have a more protective personality, Varble said.<br /><br />"Thank goodness that bed hog Beast is gone so I can catch up on my zzz's." -- Buttercup, a 4-year-old beagle-bulldog mix.

Is sleeping with your pets good for them? —

 “In general, it is a very good thing for animals to sleep with their people,” said Dr. Dana Varble, the chief veterinary officer for the North American Veterinary Community.

“Do you really think there’s enough room for you?” — Delilah, a 10-year-old Siberian husky.
Courtesy Brawner Raymond

"Who says everyone can't fit in the bed? As long as I get the biggest part so I can spread out, I'm cool." -- Beast (bottom right), a 106-pound  European Doberman, with (clockwise from bottom left) his sisters Buttercup and Bear; brother Joey, laying on their human; and sister Bailey.
Is sleeping with your pets good for them?

Hide presents from pets

If you aren’t sure what’s in a present, Varble suggests keeping gifts in a closet until it’s time to open them.

“There could be chocolates and food wrapped in presents, and dogs have this unique ability to root out chocolate with their amazing sense of smell — chocolate in plastic containers, chocolate in wrapping paper, chocolate tucked away in a purse or in a cabinet that they suddenly can fling open,” she said. “It’s very high-risk. The worst I’ve ever seen was a dog that ate a 3-pound chocolate bar, the whole thing. That dog was very sick.”

Begging eyes are hard to resist, but you’re actually loving your pets more if you keep table scraps, bones and other tidbits away from them at the holidays, Varble said.

“We see a lot of pancreatitis and upset stomachs this time of year from getting too many treats or treats that they’re not used to,” she said. “You can make your pet feel special at the holidays by giving them canned food on top of their kibble or making them plain chicken and rice. We prescribe that for dogs with upset stomachs, but they love it and see it as a treat.”

Stress can sicken pets

Stress is one holiday danger people may not think of, Varble said. Just like people, pets can overreact to the frantic holiday pace.

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“We do see a lot of stress-related disorders in dogs and cats this time of year, which send them to the emergency room far more often than we might think,” she said. “In dogs it’s usually vomiting and diarrhea, while in cats I worry about inappropriate urination and inappropriate scratching. And it’s usually because our schedules have changed.”

Animals crave routine, she said, and can react poorly when holiday guests and preparations disrupt their typical schedules.

“They love knowing I go for my walk at this time, I get my treat at this time, dinner comes to me at this time, I get to cuddle at this time,” she said. “So it’s important around the holidays to try and maintain your pet’s schedule.”

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