Q: Our new daughter-in-law owns a garden center and wants to fill our home with poinsettias over the holidays. I told her I'd have to check with you first to be sure they are safe for our cats.
A: You may accept your new family member's generous gift without worrying about your cats. Poinsettias were once thought to be toxic based on a century-old report that falsely attributed a child's death to the plant.
We now know that many Christmas plants, including the poinsettia and Christmas cactus, are reasonably safe around pets. Cats that eat these plants may develop mild vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal discomfort with diminished appetite and energy, but these problems usually resolve on their own fairly quickly.
If your cats nibble an amaryllis, they may experience these difficulties plus tremors, a more serious concern.
Mistletoe, another popular Christmas plant, poses even more risk. As a parasitic vine, its toxicity depends on its host plant. If mistletoe berries are ingested, they can cause vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, behavioral changes, and heart and lung problems. I suggest you savor a kiss beneath artificial mistletoe instead of risking your cats' health.
The most toxic holiday plant is the lily, so don't allow any in your home. If your cat chews a lily leaf or flower, or even just licks pollen that sticks to her fur, she could develop life-threatening kidney failure.
I hope your family celebration and forest of poinsettias bring you joy throughout the holiday season.
Q: Our dog Jake sometimes steals food from the table. When the family gathers for our Hanukkah meal, what foods should we guard most closely?
A: Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, celebrates the miracle that a one-day supply of sacred olive oil lit the temple's menorah for eight days. We observe this victory of light over darkness by enjoying foods prepared in oil, including potato pancakes called latkes and jelly donuts known as sufganiyot.
Foods that contain dairy products, especially cheese blintzes, are another favorite Hanukkah tradition.
Prevent Jake from eating these high-fat goodies, which often cause vomiting and diarrhea — or worse, painful pancreatitis. Recurrent bouts damage the pancreas enough that it can no longer produce insulin or vital digestive enzymes.
Jake also should not eat onions or garlic because they can damage his red blood cells and lead to anemia. Don't give him raisins, another traditional Hanukkah treat, or grapes, because these can cause kidney failure in dogs.
Keep Jake out of the kitchen when the challah dough is rising to prevent him from eating it. The dough will expand in his stomach, causing vomiting and abdominal pain. In addition, the yeast produces alcohol, which can induce loss of coordination and alcohol poisoning.
Jake shouldn't eat anything containing the artificial sweetener xylitol, which often is used in sugar-free candy and gum. Xylitol is also an ingredient in some peanut butters, ice creams and baked goods. In dogs, this sugar substitute can damage the liver and drop blood sugar low enough to precipitate seizures.
Finally, keep Jake away from the chocolate gelt. Chocolate contains caffeine and theobromine that in dogs can cause vomiting, diarrhea, hyperactivity, abnormal heart rhythm and seizures that persist for many hours.
If Jake knows "down" and "stay," ask him to settle down in the corner while everyone cooks, eats and cleans up. If he can't manage that, confine him to his crate or a bedroom while the food is out.
Lee Pickett, VMD, practices companion animal medicine in North Carolina. Contact her at https://askthevet.pet.
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