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Kansas State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory

Holiday pet poisoning dangers

By Dr. Deon van der Merwe

With the holiday season upon us, it may be worth to once again consider some of the poisoning dangers that pets are prone to during this period. Some are well known, but others may not be perceived as risks by pet owners. 

Common holiday food exposures that pose a poisoning risk is chocolate, and other foods that contain chocolate. Exposure leads to excessive nervous system stimulation, increased heart rate, and elevated blood pressure. When intake levels are very high the effects can be deadly. Baker’s chocolate and dark chocolate are generally more problematic than milk chocolate due to the higher cacao content, and small dogs are more often involved because they tend to consume higher quantities of chocolate on a per body weight basis. Other risk factors include dogs that have heart conditions, or animals that are prone to epilepsy. 

Another risk associated with sweet foods is the artificial sweetener xylitol. Most of us are familiar with the dangers of xylitol when used as a sweetener in gum, but it may also be found in foods where its presence is not as obvious. It could be included in candies, drinks, and baked goods as a lower caloric value sweetener compared to sugar. It stimulates the release of insulin in dogs, resulting in hypoglycemia. High levels of exposure may lead to liver failure. 

Also, watch out for some other common holiday food ingredients that many people don’t associate with poisoning in dogs because they are innocuous in people, such as macadamia nuts and raisins. Macadamia nuts can cause transient hind limb paralysis. Grapes and raisins are sporadically associated with renal failure in dogs. 

Poinsettias are a holiday poisoning concern that many people appear to be aware of, and it often causes concern when people observe pets chewing on the leaves. It can cause gastrointestinal irritation with vomiting and diarrhea, but the effects are usually mild. Exposed animals should be observed for potential development of severe effects, but in most cases the effects are not severe enough to require treatment. 

Some dogs are prone to ingesting Christmas tree ornaments. Ornaments could cause a foreign body obstruction, and metallic ornaments may release metals such as zinc that could cause poisoning. Tinsel is a Christmas decoration that can pose a risk, but many pet owners appear to be unaware of the danger. Tinsel poses a significant linear foreign body risk, but an additional risk associated with large ingestions is the release of metals, particularly zinc, used to produce the reflective surfaces on tinsel. Dogs are prone to oxidative damage to the red cells following zinc exposure, which can cause the formation of methemoglobin and Heinz bodies. Severe cases may result in significant hemolysis and renal failure. 

Please keep an eye out for potential exposures to these products and alert pet owners when needed, because pet owners are often not aware of the danger. 

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