Tis the season for holiday merriment, and for many households that involves big meals, desserts, fancy decorations and gifts. And while this is often dubbed the ‘happiest time of the year’, it can also be a dangerous time of year for our pets. Many of our favorite holiday foods can actually be toxic to our pets. We’ll take a look at a few of these potentially poisonous foods throughout this article.

With tantalizing smells coming from the kitchen, it’s little wonder that our pets want in on the action. Unfortunately, there are some foods that are safe for us to eat, but toxic to our pets. Most people are aware that chocolate is toxic to our pets. It contains a chemical called theobromine, which has effects on the brain, heart and gastrointestinal system. Theobromine is a cerebral (brain) stimulant, which results in hyperexcitability, muscle tremors, seizures, and hyper-responsiveness to stimuli (they overreact to noise, touch, etc.). It is also a strong myocardial stimulant, meaning that it causes an extremely elevated heart rate, and can also cause life-threatening arrhythmias. Chocolate can also be irritating to the stomach and intestines, causing vomiting and diarrhea. Lastly, it can also act as a diuretic, making your pet have to urinate more, and subsequently drink more to keep up with fluid loss. The darker the chocolate, the more theobromine it contains; baking chocolate contains the most, while white chocolate contains the least (this does not mean that white chocolate is not harmful, it just takes a larger amount to cause illness). If you suspect your pet has gotten into the Christmas cookies or other chocolate goodies, call your vet as soon as possible. Depending how long it has been since your pet ate the chocolate, she may recommend inducing vomiting to get as much chocolate as possible out of the stomach, and administration of activated charcoal to block further absorption of the toxin. We will also need to closely monitor your dog’s heart rate and rhythm, and watch for any seizure activity.

While chocolate is the best known food toxin to pets, there are other foods that can be dangerous, as well. Grapes and raisins are toxic to pets, especially dogs. Eating just a few grapes can cause acute renal (kidney) failure in dogs, which may or may not be reversible. While we know that this occurs, at this time we still don’t know what chemical in grapes causes the toxicity.

Onions, chives, leeks and garlic are also poisonous to our pets; cats and our Japanese canine breeds seem to be the most sensitive, but it can cause illness in all breeds. Garlic is up to 5 times more potent than onions when it comes to toxicity. The chemical in these root plants cause oxidative damage to the red blood cells, making them much more likely to rupture. When large numbers of red blood cells rupture, anemia results, making it harder to deliver oxygen to all the body’s tissues. Some signs of severe anemia include pale gums, elevated heart rate, weakness, exercise intolerance and collapse. Onions and garlic can also cause gastrointestinal upset, which may be exhibited by vomiting, diarrhea, drooling, and a painful belly. Unfortunately, signs of onion/garlic poisoning can be delayed several days after ingestion. It is best to just keep these foods clear of reach of your furry family. If you suspect your pet has eaten some onion or garlic, call your vet as soon as possible.

Turkey, ham, potatoes, yams, cranberries: these are not directly toxic to pets, however, they are much richer foods than what our pets are typically used to. As much as we like to ‘treat’ our pets when we have big meals, it really is not a good idea. Feeding these rich foods can cause gastrointestinal upset (vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain), or worse, pancreatitis. The pancreas produces enzymes that aids in digestion, and feeding fatty foods can overwhelm the pancreas, causing it to become inflamed. Some cases of pancreatitis can be managed at home with medications, but some pets need to be hospitalized with IV fluids and medications. Pancreatitis can be life-threatening in some cases.

Please don’t give your pets any leftover bones from your meal. Dogs get so excited for this tasty treat that they can swallow their treat; ham/beef bones can get stuck in the stomach or intestines, causing an obstruction. In these cases, we have to surgically remove the blockage. Bird bones (turkey, chicken, duck) are very fragile and can easily break, causing cuts to the mouth, or even puncture the GI tract as the fragments move through.

Last toxic food item (to be addressed here, anyway), is alcohol. For our pets, alcohol acts as an anesthetic agent; it blocks neurons in the brain. This results in a variety of symptoms. It can cause excitability and vocalization, urinary incontinence, incoordination, drowsiness, respiratory depression (slow breathing rate), unconsciousness, and even death. Essentially, all the same things that occur to humans if we drink too much, however, our pets are much more sensitive and have a lot lower ‘tolerance’ than most people. Please keep an eye on your drinks, and keep them out of reach of your pets. If you know or suspect your pet has consumed an alcoholic beverage, you guessed it, call your vet.

The moral of the story is, as much as we want to spoil our pets when we have our feasts, it is in their best interest for you to ‘just say no’. We know how hard it is to resist those begging eyes, but stay strong. Instead, offer them a little canned pet food as a treat, or an extra dog/cat treat that is less likely to cause problems. Our pets may try to take matters into their own paws and still try to get ahold of extra snacks, so make sure to keep food and drinks up and away from their eager reach. As always, if you are concerned your pet got something he or she shouldn’t have, please don’t hesitate to call your vet; we’re here to help!