Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in agility and obedience with her four dogs.
Christmas is a time for celebration, good company and fun. A time when many of us are very busy, when friends drop by for dinner, when the house changes appearance as the tree goes up and presents arrive.
For our dogs, this can be a stressful time of year with lots of changes and disruptions to their usual routine. Also, Christmas can be a time when hazards to our dog's health enter our homes—from deadly leftovers to dangerous decorations, there are lots of things to watch out for this Christmas. But with a little care, you can ensure your festivities do not end up with a trip to the emergency vet.
1. Oh, Christmas Tree!
Whether natural or artificial, the Christmas tree is the focal point for many of us when we begin to decorate the house. For our dogs, the sudden arrival of this new object in the home can be a cause for curiosity or anxiety, depending on your dog's nature and also where the tree is placed.
Dogs that do not cope well with change may find the arrival of a Christmas tree upsetting, but most will settle down with time. If you have a dog that might be spooked by a tree, try to keep them out of the way while the tree is being put up (the movement can make it seem threatening) and once it is in place, allow the dog time to become comfortable with it being around.
For other dogs, the tree is like a big, new toy in the house and their curiosity can put them at risk. While pine needles are considered low in toxicity to dogs, they do contain oils that could irritate a dog's mouth and cause an upset stomach if chewed on. Some dogs are tempted to drink the water contained in the tree stand (if it is a natural tree) and may consume pine needles in the process. These can cause vomiting.
Dogs that like to pull on objects might be tempted to yank or tug on the tree branches with the potential result of the tree toppling over. The dog could be hurt if the tree lands on them or, in the case of artificial trees with metal branches, could even suffer puncture wounds from the tree falling.
In either of these situations, the simplest solution is to only allow your dog near the tree when you are around to watch them. If it is impossible to prevent your dog accessing the room where the tree is, try putting a puppy pen around its base so the dog cannot get close to it when you are not there.
Another point to consider is the packaging the tree arrives in. Many natural trees come in nets, while artificial trees may come in plastic bags. These items present choking and suffocation hazards to your pet if they were to become entangled in them. Dispose of netting immediately in a bin your dog can't access, and keep plastic bags stored in cupboards or inside a box.
2. Hazardous Ornaments and Decorations
What is Christmas without decorating the house? But so many of those bright decorations could be a danger to our pets.
Glass ornaments are the most obvious risk to dogs. If they smash on the floor they could cut paws, but if chewed they could cut the mouth, throat and stomach. Glass baubles on the tree are very dangerous to dogs that love balls and are prone to grabbing things. A dog may think these are toys, bite one and end up with a mouth of shards.
Plastic ornaments may also shatter and though the shards are not as sharp as that of glass, they can still cause damage. Smaller plastic ornaments, such as the figurines used in miniature Christmas village scenes can be swallowed, potentially becoming a choking hazard or causing a blockage in the dog's stomach.
In the case of baubles, buying shatterproof can help, and you could fence off the tree to prevent the dog from getting to it, as mentioned above. With small figurines, stick them to the surface they are displayed on with something like model wax (used in dollhouses or other models) to prevent them from being easily knocked to the floor.
Vintage decorations, especially those made in China, are very likely to be painted with lead-based paints. These can pose a danger if the paint is flaking or a pet chews upon them. Ingestion of chips or flakes of lead paint can cause lead poisoning, resulting in digestive problems, abdominal pain, seizures, blindness or trouble walking.
Tinsel presents a choking hazard, either through being chewed or getting wrapped around a dog's neck. It can also be swallowed and cause a blockage in the intestines.
Illuminated decorations, such as light-up houses or Christmas tree lights mean that a lot more wires are draped around the home and puppies or dogs prone to chewing things, could be tempted to munch on a wire and electrocute themselves.
With all these decorations, the key to keeping pets safe is to ensure they cannot reach the displays and that ornaments are securely placed so they cannot be knocked down, or fall for the dog to find.
3. Dangerous Christmas Treats
Christmas is a wonderful time for food, but some of our favourite festive treats have the potential to be dangerous to our dogs.
Traditional Christmas Cake
Traditional Christmas cake is made with dried fruit and alcohol, this includes raisins, sultanas and currants which are dried grapes. Grapes, sultanas and raisins are toxic to dogs and can cause kidney failure. Some currants are actually dried red or black currants but, more commonly, those bought for cooking are the 'currants' made from a very small variety of grape, meaning they are also poisonous to dogs.
Christmas pudding is made from similar ingredients to Christmas cake and as such poses the same health risks.
Traditional mince pies are made from 'mincemeat' a rich mixture of dried fruits and suet, and once again featuring sultanas, raisins and currants. There are forms of mince pies that are made using meat, rather than fruit, but these may still contain raisins or currants.
While it is not yet known why these dried fruits are so toxic to dogs, that they can cause a medical emergency is clear. Some dogs appear more susceptible than others, but even a single grape can induce a reaction. If your dog consumes any of these foods, you should seek veterinary advice at once. Untreated, poisoning by these dried fruits can result in kidney and liver failure.
4. Holiday Stress
At Christmas we often find ourselves receiving unexpected guests and the constant arrival and departure of visitors can be unsettling for some dogs. Dogs that are nervous around strangers, or are not used to lots of visitors, will find Christmas stressful. This could lead to barking, urinating in the house, anxiety, hiding away and, in worst-case scenarios, a bite to a person.
Vets warn that the holidays are a prime time for dog bites, as pets are placed under stress, their usual routines are thrown out and they find themselves swamped by new people and objects entering their homes.
Dogs may be taken to another person's house to visit and this can cause extra anxiety, especially if there is a resident dog present. Placed into unfamiliar territory and with an unknown dog, a stressed canine may react by fighting with the resident dog, or growling and snapping at people.
Other issues can arise from children visiting, especially when a dog is not used to them. Even a tolerant dog can be pushed to the limit by children, it could be as simple as the child falling over the dog while it is sleeping, or it might be the child pulls its ears or tail. With tensions already up, this can result in a snap, or bite. Sadly, the dog is usually blamed for the problem and quite often is euthanized as a result.
If you have a dog that finds visitors stressful, try using calming supplements several days before guests arrive to help relax your dog. All dogs will benefit from having a safe place they can go to where they will be left in peace. This might be a basket in a quiet room (off-limits to guests and children) or a crate. It needs to be somewhere they feel safe and they should not be forced into it, as this heightens anxiety.
Baby gates can be used to limit where the dog (and guests) can go during the festivities, but for some dogs, this can increase their stress as they are removed from their owner. A better option might be to offer the dog several 'safe places' near where the owner will be (ie. in the kitchen, next to the owner's seat at the dinner table, by the sofa). Safe places might be a bed or soft crate. Long before they are needed, encourage the dog to use these safe spots, by tossing treats into them. Many nervous dogs find enclosed crates reassuring places to be, and will naturally gravitate to them.
If, when guests arrive, the dog displays anxiety, such as through barking, try having guests throw treats on the floor to the dog - this is less pressure than having them give the dog a treat from their hand. You might also like to offer your dog a treat when they are calm and not barking, to reward good behaviour. Make yourself a barrier between the dog and people, and ask your guests to ignore the dog unless it seeks them out for attention.
To prepare an anxious dog for visitors can take weeks or months, but many people leave the situation to the last minute and then end up with an unsettled, unhappy dog that disrupts Christmas by barking or growling. Do not punish or yell at the dog, as this will increase their anxiety. Instead, work to help them calm down, offer them safety and comfort. It may even be better for all concerned if instead of having everyone to your house for Christmas, you choose to go out to eat, thus removing a big stress from your festive plans.
5. Hazardous Christmas Scents
One of the pleasures of Christmas are all the wonderful seasonal smells, however, some of the ways those scents are created can be harmful to our dogs.
Air fresheners, whether plug-in or sprays, usually contain Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) which help them to disperse in the air and change the fragrance. These same VOCs can cause allergic reactions in people and pets. In dogs exposed to these chemicals there can be damage to the central nervous system, kidneys and liver, irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, and potentially loss of coordination.
Diffusers that use essential oils can also cause issues, as many of the oils used, though natural, are toxic to pets. Among those considered poisonous to dogs are oil of cinnamon, citrus, peppermint, pine and tea tree. All scents used around Christmas time. Contact with essential oils, even if just inhaled, can result in respiratory problems, central nervous system issues and behaviour changes.
Candles, scented or plain, are often used to create a cosy atmosphere during the festive season. While most people are aware that there is an obvious danger of having a naked flame around a dog, especially if the candle is on a low surface, many are not aware of the hidden dangers these candles can pose to both dogs and people. Scented candles may contain ingredients as mentioned above that can poison pets, but even unscented candles may contain nasty additives. These include a number of chemicals that can be carcinogens when burned.
Many candles are made from paraffin wax, which when burned releases substances that are considered cancer-causing, and could cause nausea and headaches. Another risk from burning candles in a small room for a long time is the soot, which can be inhaled and cause respiratory problems in animals and people. Dogs are more vulnerable as they require less of the substances to make them ill.
Potpourri is a popular way of placing scent lightly into a home, but it too is hazardous to dogs, this is because it contains those same essential oils mentioned above. In fact, a dog need not eat the potpourri to be at risk, some oils are toxic if absorbed through the skin. Also, large items in the potpourri mix (such as bark or pine cones) can present a choking hazard. If you are using potpourri, make sure it is kept well out of reach of your dog.
6. Alcohol Poisoning
During the festive period many people like to have a tipple or two, unfortunately, emergency vets will often encounter dogs at this time of year who have also indulged in a drop of alcohol, potentially with fatal consequences.
While most people know dogs should not be given alcohol, with lots of visitors around and busy parties, accidents can occur. Dogs may drink out of a glass that has been left on a table or the floor, or lap up a spillage. Particularly dangerous are creamy liqueurs, such as Baileys Irish Cream, which are sweet and milky. Dogs that would not drink ordinary alcohol, may find the cream impossible to resist.
When a dog consumes alcohol they are at risk of suffering alcohol poisoning. Their blood sugar and blood pressure drop, sometimes dangerously low and their body temperature decreases. In severe cases a dog will start having seizures and can end up in respiratory failure.
Dogs can die from drinking alcohol, and while it does depend on the size of the animal and the amount drunk, some will suffer fatal results from a relatively small sip. So if you are having a party this year, or indulging in a drink or two yourself, make sure you keep your dog well away from the booze.
7. Fireplace Dangers
One of the pleasures of Christmas is settling down beside a crackling fire, either in a traditional fireplace or in a wood burning stove. Dogs usually enjoy the warmth too and can often be found curled up by the hearth.
Burn risk. There are some obvious hazards concerning fireplaces, such as exposed flames and sparks leaping from the hearth. Puppies or exuberant dogs are the most at risk, especially if the fireplace is only used occasionally and they are used to it being empty. Accidentally tumbling into the fire due to rough play or even curiosity could result in burns.
Overheating. In contrast, older dogs are at risk due to sleeping too close to the fire because they love the warmth. They may get too close and suffer singed fur, or if a stray spark bounces out it could land on them and cause harm. The simplest way to keep them safe is to always have a fireguard in place while the hearth is in use.
Carbon monoxide poisoning. A hidden risk of fireplaces and wood-burners is carbon monoxide poisoning. This can be dangerous to people and pets (according to the NHS around 25 people die each year through carbon monoxide poisoning, and many more are made unwell).
Carbon monoxide is a gas produced when a fuel source (wood, coal) burns without enough oxygen being present. This can occur when a chimney is blocked, or if a room is closed up with little air entering. Carbon monoxide is also released in small amounts from ash, so leaving ash in a fireplace or fire bucket can result in a build up of the gas.
Carbon monoxide is odourless and tasteless, which is why it is known as the silent killer. Most people will not realise they are being affected until it is too late, especially if they fall asleep by a fire. The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, a feeling of fatigue and weakness, shortness of breath and, lastly, unconsciousness. If a person or pet does not receive medical treatment they may die.
Dogs are more at risk than their owners, so make sure any room you have a fire in is well ventilated, chimneys and flues are clean and free from blockages, ashes are regularly cleaned out and disposed of safely, and for peace of mind, invest in a carbon monoxide detector.
8. Dangers Hidden Under the Tree
What would Christmas be without gifts? Presents under the tree or around the fireplace are part of the magic, but sometimes they can also be a cause of problems for our pets.
Chocolate. Chocolate is a popular Christmas gift and there will usually be lots around the house. Every Christmas vets see dogs that have consumed chocolate and become sick as a result. In severe cases, a dog might even suffer a heart attack from consuming chocolate due to a chemical contained in it called theobromine. The type of chocolate a dog eats will determine how ill they may be. Dark chocolate and cooking/drinking chocolate contains the most theobromine, while milk and white chocolate contains the least. Also be aware of sugar-free sweets or chocolates, which are popular as gifts for diabetics. These may contain the sweetener Xylitol, which is deadly to dogs.
Batteries. Many presents, especially children's toys, require batteries and with so many lying about, a dog might be tempted to pick one up and chew it. The chemicals inside a battery are corrosive and will burn and ulcerate a dog's mouth, while if swallowed the battery could cause harm to the stomach and intestines. If your dog eats a battery, do not induce vomiting, as this could worsen the problem, instead seek immediate veterinary attention.
Metallic paper. After the opening of the presents, there will be lots of wrapping paper and string lying around. Dogs are quite fond of ripping up the paper and there is little harm in that, but occasionally a present may be wrapped in a stiff, foil or metallic paper. If large pieces of this were swallowed, they could be difficult to digest and create a blockage in the dog's bowels. A similar thing might occur if string is eaten, especially the shiny, plastic ribbon used to wrap some gifts. There is also a slight possibility of a pet being suffocated by plastic ribbon, if it was to get it tangled around its neck.
9. Christmas Treats
Of course, with all these presents for ourselves, what about our pets? There are plenty of dog gifts available in shops this time of year, so it is tempting to treat our pets. Some gifts, however, can have a sting in their tail.
Rawhide is a popular choice and comes in many forms at Christmas. It is a common cause of intestinal blockages as it does not digest well and it can contain colours and preservatives that can cause behavioural changes in dogs. There is speculation that some of these chemicals might even cause cancer.
Bones are loved by dogs, but shop-bought bones can splinter and cut the mouth or stomach. Large pieces may also cause blockages. These bones are normally dried and can be very hard, which can damage teeth. Hollow bones can even get stuck around a dog's jaw as it chews on them.
Light-up dog toys have recently hit the shelves. These are usually plastic balls that illuminate when they hit the ground, great for fetch in the dark. However, if these balls are chewed then the dog may reach the battery used to power them. As mentioned above, batteries pose a hazard to dogs if chewed or swallowed as they are full of corrosive chemicals.
For more information on treats that can be bad for your dog, check out my article Dangerous Dog Treats.
10. The Leftovers
After the feast comes the leftovers. There is always too much food at Christmas and it is tempting to offer leftovers to pets. While there is generally no harm in doing this, there are a few things to bear in mind. Turkey is a Christmas staple and dogs love it too. However, too much turkey can cause a mildly upset stomach, so moderate how much you give.
Cooked bones of any sort are not good for dogs, whether they are from the turkey, duck or goose, or something sturdier, such as a ham bone. Cooked bones can splinter, cut mouths or harm the digestive system, they can also cause blockages.
Nuts are a popular after-dinner treat, but watch out for big shells (such as walnut shells) which dogs may pick up and choke on. The same applies if you have a bowl of whole nuts left out. If you like Macadamia nuts, make sure these are kept well out of the reach of your dog, as they are poisonous to them.
Cheese is another Christmas favourite, and your dog probably likes a bite too. Most cheese is safe for dogs to eat, though it can have a laxative effect as many dogs do not tolerate dairy well. However, blue cheese, such as Stilton, can contain a substance called roquefortine C, which is responsible for the blue veins of the cheese. In large amounts, roquefortine C can cause seizures, stomach upset, fever and tremors in a dog.
Snack bags, such as the bags used for crisps, chips or nuts, are one of the most overlooked hazards for dogs. There have been numerous cases of dogs suffocating after snuffling inside empty snack bags. Dogs put their noses inside, tempted by crumbs and end up unable to breathe. Tragically, many dogs pass away each year from something that is easily preventable.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2019 Sophie Jackson