Sometimes you just have to take it out of their mouth, put back up on the mantle, give them a pet and toast to their joyful oblivion
Here we are, already past Thanksgiving and heading into the new year in just a month! The weather has changed, many of us are traveling or expecting visitors. Things around the holidays get a little unpredictable for the pets in our lives. If they aren’t getting on a plane, they are exposed to all sorts of holiday fun and sometimes a bit of festive-related peril. To keep it safe, consider the changes in your companion’s routine, diet, environment and the new company that may meet your pet. There will possibly be some decorations, foods and treats, all the added excitement of a visitor and their stuff plus the changing needs of a pet with more company and more exposures than usual. In general dogs and cats differ in two ways. The dog is more willing to eat a variety of things cats would turn down but cat’s have particular unexpected favorites and unique sensitivites making each sensitive to holiday perils and, in case of potential exposures, in need of your supervision and support.
When it comes to plants, we know to avoid lillies in cats (cannas and water lillies are OK) and that mistletoe, poinsettia and holly can be mild gastrointestinal irritants. But dear festive Lorax, also remember the trees! Fir, spruce or pine tree parts when ingested by cats can cause vomiting, anorexia, abdominal pain and depression. The other tree to watch out for is sneaky. Tea tree oil is a topical antibacterial that you might want to apply to itchy skin or a small scratch noticed during the play time you have if you get some extra time off. Don’t do it! The pure oil is toxic through skin or oral exposure and can lead to difficulty walking, low body temperature, dehydration and coma with exposures as little as 7 drops. Liver damage is possible in cats who are exquisitely sensitive. But, the decorative and over-the-counter topical use of plants may be a whole lot easier to control than the festive feeding frenzy that ensues during most everyone’s holiday season.
When it comes to food, there are some obvious pet/food combo no-no’s to avoid. It’s common knowledged that fatty & spicy foods tend to upset some dog stomachs more than ours but more innocent-looking foods and treats that our companion animals may be eyeing can hold even more peril. Onions and garlic make much of our savory cooking delicious, but via a toxin called n-propyl disulfide which is actually source of their intense flavor, they actually damage the red blood corpuscles (“cells”) of all animals. When the gut transforms the chemicals in onions or garlic to highly reactive oxidative metabolites, these toxins act to basically “rust” the RBCs. This damages the oxygen-carrying hemoglobin and causes anemias which can be chronic and low grade or if eaten in a large dose over a short time, can acutely devastate pet health with overwhelming hemolytic anemias. Without the healthy hemoglobin which can be damaged by these tasty plants in food, the blood cannot carry enough oxygen and so the body compensates resulting high heart rates. Other signs of anemia such as pale gums and weakness can result. We humans can tolerate much more of this oxidative damage and don’t even notice the impact of diets heavy in onions and garlic because our hemoglobin has only 2 reactive sulfhydryl groups which can be altered whereas dogs have 4 and cats have a whopping 8 vulnerable sites on their hemoglobin. Cats are exquisitely sensitive to anemias due to onions or garlic because they also lack the restorative enzyme to combat this damage called methemoglobin reductase. Worse than fresh ingredients are heavily processed and concentrated versions so avoid letting pets have access to any dishes heavy with garlic powder. Baby foods are an unexpected source of onion and garlic exposure for cats and dogs. But, though we don’t see tons of success with the garlic and onion herbal flea remedies especially this season, they have ‘deodorized’ garlic which removes the disulfides and so, though the disulfides would have been the anti-parasitic punch garlic could have provided, the pleasant low-odor formulas pose much less risk.
On to snacks & dessert, macadamia nuts in chocolate are frequent gifts for friends travelling from Hawaii but, for reasons unknown, these nuts can occasionally cause alarmingly high fevers, loss of the ability to use the hindlimbs and tremors in dogs. Luckily, most of these dogs, despite becoming severely ill, recover in 48 hours from macadamia nut intoxication. The chocolate (and its partner in toxicology, coffee) holds methylxanthines that people can tolerate at far higher doses than dogs. Our canine companions can suffer hyperactivity, increased heart rate and abnormal rhythms, tremors or seizures, high blood pressure and even death following the early signs of vomiting and diarrhea with increased thirst after getting into chocolate or coffee-based products. Cocoa powder or bitter dark chocolate (which is seven times as toxic as milk chocolate) and espresso carry the highest risk but no exposure is worth the immediate trip to the vet we always recommend for this exposure. Cats are sensitive too but far less likely to indulge. The exception is my cat who becomes a raging vacuum with one whiff of chocolate.
But chocolate or not, some baking itself can be a surprising source of potential toxicity. Getting into rising bread dough has sent many a dog to the surgeon’s door for removal & can absolutely be fatal. The pet’s body heat activates fermentation producing alcohol and/or the dough in the gastrointestinal tract can expand to many times larger than what was ingested. Alcohol poisoning and bloating are serious effects dogs can suffer from eating rising bread dough. Molds are another microbe we can find as the fridge fills and the cooking escalates and the trash piles up out back. The tremorgenic mycotoxins molds they produce on spoiled food, such as penitrem-A, can produce more than just shaking. An unsteady gait to even convulsions that can last several days can occur. Dogs who snoop in the holiday trash or escape the yard as merry-makers come and go are more at risk.
Some baked goods inherently contain ingredients that, while relatively safe for people, can be deadly to dogs and possibly even cats. Raisins are frequently found in holiday treats and, though we have no idea why grapes and their dried cousins cause acute kidney failure in many dogs while a few dogs and possibly cats remain immune as we do, the risk with just a few bites of this fruit and this devastating disease make it well worth avoiding. Vomiting and lethargy can be early signs but within 24 hours acute kidney failure is possible and though mysteriously, some dogs can tolerate them since the toxin is unclear, there is no known safe dose. Given the unknowns and lifelong medical costs if they survive, treat any exposure (even 10 raisins from a nephew’s snack box) of grapes or raisins in dogs as an emergency.
The other purposeful sweet ingredient to watch for is xylitol. This nasty artificial sweetener is now showing up not only in gum and human medications, but also in peanut butter and baking ingredients. The best part is all the new names they use instead of spelling it out that xylitol is in certain products. It’s no use naming them here because more names are created to confuse us about this horrid sweetener every week. So just avoid products with artificial sweeteners altogether to be safe (literally almost every gum included). Xylitol in tiny doses can be absolutely deadly to dogs, causing dangerously low blood sugar which can lead to coma and also acute liver damage. Why manufacturers continue to blithely add this ingredient to a myriad of products without clear warnings is incomprehensible but keep Aunt Minnie’s purse full of chewing gum and the diabetic cupcakes on the coffee table very far from your pets. As an aside, also keep some personal lubricants, makeup & moisturizer products and baby bottle wipes far away from pets for the same reason. Go figure! Lastly, xylitol shows up in many human medications also listed under other those vague new names. This is one of the BEST reasons never to give pets human medications and keep it packed away from curious critters.
In general, and not just for xylitol avoidance, human drugs and pets are just an accident waiting to happen. As an aside, here’s a random important note for cats and pills: keep all Effexor away from them because they just find it irresistable and it can cause changes in their breathing, heart rate, difficulty walking and even agitation. But, good old Aunt Minnie may lose a heartburn pill under the guest bed just as you may nod off after dinner without taking the Abilify you left on the nightstand. Those can contain xylitol too and the hectic nature of holidays make human medications a prime target for trouble in pill-gobbling pets. The accidental exposures can be mostly avoided by keeping track of travel bags, warning guests about nosy pups getting into bottles & digging in bags for doses, but be sure your bored old uncle doesn’t get too helpful either. An over-eager exercise hound in your house shouldn’t take your dog for a longer-than-usual jog, get the guilties and then contemplate giving her something he takes for the soreness. Dogs, cats and people do not have the same cellular-housekeeping practices or the same livers. If you’re noticing a trend in this piece then good on you! You’re probably starting to get the idea that enzymes and metabolism are the foundation of drug and other toxin sensitivities and dogs are not small people just like a cat is not a small dog.
In fact, pain relievers are some of the most common and deadly intoxications veterinarians see. My least favorite is Aleve. All NSAIDs work to inhibit the enzyme cycloxygenase (which has a couple of important variants COX-1 & COX-2 which when inhibited affects most potently either at vascular perfusion especially in the gut lining, on inflammation along with pain pathways and/or in other maintenance functions or sites of the body). COX-2 selectivity is preferred in these drugs as that is the inhibition which relieves pain and inflammation while preserving gut mucosal function and blood flow to kidneys. But of course, just like metabolism, COX selectivity in these drugs species-specific too just to complicate matters making the one safest for people not necessarily safe for your dog. In humans, metabolism is rapid and strong, with 1/2 of your naproxen dose is cleared from the body in 6 hours. But dogs metabolize NSAIDs differently and excrete this drug via the bile and so retain half a dose for 74 hours! Any mistakes or exposures therefore compound quickly if another pill is eaten. And exposure to any of the NSAIDs (including ibuprofen, Celebrex, Vioxx, aspirin and even overdoses of veterinary specific drugs) can cause rapid life-threatening injuries. It’s just that human drugs frequently have no “right dose” in pets because nothing is low enough to be effective and yet safe. Different species and even individuals vary in tolerance but a good rule of thumb is that humans tolerate higher doses and get relief at lower doses, dogs get toxic effects easier than we do and cats are 2 to 5 times more sensitive to poisoning via this drug class than dogs. Therefore, by the time human-friendly drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen reach pain-relieving effects in dogs or cats, they are already causing life-threatening GI ulcers and perforations, kidney damage and failure and occasionally even liver failure and neurologic effects of poisoning. The signs of NSAID intoxication in pets include a mild GI upset in the first 2 to 6 hours followed by a delay in ulceration from 12 hours up to 4 days after ingestion. During this time, higher doses which result in kidney damage would frequently show signs such as increased thirst or urination or the more ominous sign of very low urine production but kidney signs may present later with GI signs. If a GI toxic dose is ingested, vomiting (sometimes bloody) with dark stool indicating digested blood or bloody stool from colonic injury, abdominal pain, loss of appetite and diarrhea may develop at this time. If an ulcer crossed the gut layers, perforation would present as shock, peritonitis and collapse. Tylenol is not in this class but deserves mention as a particular threat to cats.
The last household holiday toxins are the most unexpected and therefore worth mentioning. As we strive to get to all the events, prepare for all the visits and maybe do some excessive shopping or celebrating, the eyes can show it. Eye drops which decrease redness in people usually contain naphazoline which can show signs of exposure in dogs within 4 hours of exposure. I’ve actually met one dog who was purposely receiving these drops from the owner and it was hard to convince him of the danger, but it is true. Most pets actually chew the bottle but by either route, naphazoline can cause vomiting, low heart rates and arrhythmias, dangerously low or high blood pressure, weakness, hyperactivity and trembling.
The last holiday toxin I want you to be wary about is dibutyl phthalate. Why this foul-tasting ingredient in glow sticks ends up being sought after for ingestion is something to ask talkative & determined pets, but the results can be alarming. Within seconds of a pet biting into them signs begin. Cats will profusely salivate and foam and may even retch and vomit. Dramatic changes in behavior such as hyperactivity, aggression, head shaking and agitation are common. All should resolve when the taste is gone but be careful handling an animal with glow-stick-goo in their mouth. If you can safely give something, tuna juice or milk should help but getting bit will only possibly send two of you to the doctor so rescuer beware. If you’re unsure of exposure, turn off the lights at look at the face. All of the dibutyl phthalate must be removed from the coat or you can expect the same signs each time the cat grooms until it is gone.
Happy holidays to all those lucky enough to have a pet in their lives and feel free to call us if you need us at Woof and Purr Vet. Just remember, the best holiday support you can give a pet is to realize under your guidance he or she can participate in the fun, can get special gifts or treats and may be able to appreciate the events in your home, the extra time you may have to spend and the guests giving extra love. If you’re keeping an eye out for signs of stress or exposures you want your animal companion to avoid while you’re juggling all the decorating and doing all the celebrating, you’re showing your love during the time of year we all stop and show appreciation to our most cherished loved ones.