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How Not to Kill Your Dog (or Cat) at Christmas

Tinsel and 11 other common holiday hazards for pets

In this season of ho-ho-ho, perhaps the last place you want to go-go-go is to a veterinary hospital. But that's the unfortunate emergency destination for thousands of pet owners each year. But don't blame poinsettias. Despite a reputation as highly toxic, the holiday versions of these popular plants cause only mild mouth or stomach irritation when eaten by pets, says veterinarian Megan Rector of the VRCC Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Hospital in Colorado.

See also: 8 myths about pet care.

Reindeer dog - the holidays can be hazardous to your pets

Keep your furry friends away from toxic foods and decorations during the holidays. — Photo by David Skernick/Getty Images

It's the other traditional Christmas decorations and foods that can turn yuletide into crueltide for dogs and cats. Here are the dangerous dozen:

Fruitcake. A treat (or not) for you, it's potentially deadly for dogs. The grapes, raisins and currants can cause kidney failure, warns the Pet Poison Hotline. Rum-soaked varieties can trigger dangerous drops in blood pressure and body temperature and possibly respiratory failure.

Potpourri. If it's dried, expect only mild gastrointestinal upset. But liquid forms — whose scent can attract cats — can be life-threatening. "It burns their mouth and … their esophagus," says Rector. Liquid potpourri can stick to paws and irritate skin and eyes after a cat grooms itself.

Mistletoe. When eaten, it most commonly causes nausea and vomiting, but don't kiss off the potential danger of a sudden and dangerous drop in blood pressure and heart rate that this cardiac depressant can sometimes cause, Rector adds.

Christmas lights. The rubber coating of cords makes for a welcome chew toy. But resulting electrical shock can cause burns of the mouth, gums and tongue, difficulty breathing, abnormal heart rhythm, loss of consciousness, and possibly death.

Tinsel. Most cats and some dogs can't resist playing with it. Eating it risks cuts in the mouth, under the tongue and throughout the intestines.

Tree preservatives. Store-bought products to extend a tree's life — or even sugar water put in a tree stand — can harbor dangerous bacteria, causing vomiting and diarrhea. And "adding aspirin or Tylenol to tree water, as many people do, is very toxic to cats and dogs who drink it," warns Rector. A cardboard cover or blanket over the water may prevent problems.

Next: Dogs, cats should avoid these fatty foods. >>

Christmas globes. Shake 'em and get a serene winter's scene. Break 'em and a lapping dog or cat can quickly die from ingesting the liquid. It often contains ethylene glycol, an ingredient in antifreeze that causes kidney failure and brain damage.

Holiday dinner. Fatty foods such as ham, pork chops, turkey skin and gravy commonly trigger vomiting and diarrhea in dogs but can also trigger a severe — and possibly fatal — inflammation of the pancreas. When eaten by dogs and cats, onions, garlic, chives and leeks cause anemia and red blood cells to rupture; look for lethargy, pale gums and rapid breathing and heart rate. Mouth irritation and gastrointestinal distress are other results.

Alcohol. Dogs will drink what you give them — and that should never include beer, wine or other spirits. Canines can't hold their liquor — literally. Liver damage or coma can result. Cats are generally teetotalers but they are curious, so beware.

Chocolate. Yes, any type is harmful to dogs, who are inherently attracted to the smell and taste, notes the Pet Poison Hotline, "but the darker and more bitter the chocolate, the more poisonous it is." Baker's chocolate is riskiest (just 2 ounces can severely sicken a 50-pound dog), followed by dark, milk and white varieties. "It depends on type and amount consumed, and body weight of the dog, but I have seen some die from eating chocolate," notes Rector.

Gifts and wrapping. What self-respecting dog — along with some curious cats — won't tear into a present for sport? The problem comes when they mistake the contents for food. Splintered toy and styrofoam pieces can get lodged in the stomach, requiring emergency surgery. Chewed batteries leak acid, causing serious internal burns. Ink from wrapping paper comes up as easily as it went down; expect vomiting. And if ribbon is ingested, surgery could be required.

Other holiday plants. Poinsettias may be out of the woods, but be careful about other festive foliage: "When eaten by cats, lilies — including amaryllis — cause kidney failure and possible death," notes Rector. Holly can damage the stomach and intestines of dogs and cats. Red azaleas and paper whites should also be avoided.

Also of interest: Caring for pets of the homeless. >>

Sid Kirchheimer writes about consumer and health issues.

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