Now married with children, Whitney Cornish remembers one childhood Christmas when visions of sugarplums were fogged by the worry over the family pet, a Yorkshire terrier named Wheaties. When the diminutive pup became suddenly ill with severe gastrointestinal problems, a seasoned veterinarian came up with the diagnosis: Wheaties had been drinking water from the Christmas tree stand.
"Another year, in late December, our tortoiseshell cat, Maxi, became very sick after she had eaten special treats that Santa brought in her stocking," Cornish says. "The vet said that happens a lot -- pet owners mean well, but some cats can't tolerate rich kitty treats."
Fortunately, both Wheaties and Maxi recovered and went on to enjoy many more holiday seasons.
"The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy for our families, but in preparing for the season, many pet owners run the risk of exposing their pets to household dangers that could present potential life-threatening hazards to their animals," says veterinarian Lori Pasternak. "These latent hazards could derail a family's holiday season if their pets become ill as a result of hidden perils."
While holiday decorations can make a home feel more festive, they can be tantalizing traps for pets, says Pasternak. Pet owners should keep decorations and ornaments higher up on trees so they aren't consumed by four-legged friends. Garland might look like a tasty treat to an animal, yet it can and will get stuck in your pet's intestines, necessitating immediate surgical removal.
Wrapping ribbon can be dangerous, too. If a cat should start gnawing on the ribbon, it will literally stitch the feline's intestines together as it is being passed through the gut, says Pasternak.
Also, pay close attention to what food your pet eats. While turkey and ham are included in almost every traditional holiday meal, the bones can become lodged in the intestines if swallowed. Don't offer your pet table scraps, as it could become seriously ill or even choke to death.
Poinsettias are toxic to most household pets if they are chewed or swallowed in large enough quantities. The level of toxicity is completely proportionate to the size and weight of the animal. However, instead of doing the math on that equation, it's best to choose other types of floral arrangements that won't be a danger to your pets.
Remember that your canine friend doesn't understand that the holiday season is all about peace and harmony. Some dogs do better with company than others, says certified professional dog trainer Madeline Gabriel. Be especially careful when children are around.
"With lots of people around, it's easy to assume that someone else is watching the dog and children," she says. "Don't assume. Assign a responsible adult to be the dog's guardian, much like you'd do with assigning a guardian to watch over the pool.
"Teach visiting children very clear rules about what they may and may not do around the dogs. Again, don't assume that everyone has the same idea of what 'be gentle' or 'leave the dogs alone' means.
"Know your dog's limits, and don't just hope for the best and allow social pressure to keep you from looking out for your best friend," says Gabriel. "If your brother does stupid things with dogs, don't let him around your dog. Be responsible. If you think your dog might bite, even a nip, don't have your dog at the party."
In short, nobody -- human, canine or feline -- wants to be sick or injured over the Christmas season. "The holidays should be a time for fun, not an unscheduled trip to the animal hospital," Pasternak says. "If something does happen, don't hesitate to take your pet to the nearest animal hospital. But we'd rather not see you this season. The best holiday gift you could give your pet is a hazard-free household so they can enjoy the warmth and joy of your celebrations safely and soundly."
As for Cornish, she knows from experience to keep her pets, Kane and Lily, away from sapped-filled water and unusual special treats. "Of course, they are St. Bernards," she says with a chuckle. "So there is always the possibility that they could knock down the tree if they wanted."