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2147 Skibo Rd. Fayetteville, NC 28314

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Posted on 12-21-2015

Whew! It is definitely the holiday season around Cross Creek Animal Hospital! Every other radio station is playing Christmas music, the roads are jam-packed with holiday shoppers, and every night we have the special treat of entertaining our clients by turning on the fireplace and enjoying National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Amidst the chuckles and jokes of such a classic movie, it’s hard to imagine a holiday gathering going so wrong. However, there is truth to the comedy. In one iconic scene, Clark Griswold tries to plug in his Christmas tree, completely unaware that his relative’s cat is chowing down on the electrical cords under a chair. Once he plugs everything in, it is as cousin Eddie puts it, “if that thing had nine lives, she just spent them all!”

It’s an iconic scene and gives us all a Santa-like chuckle, but to animal health professionals and veterinarians, it’s cringe-worthy because YES—it can really happen!  

            “Electrical cords are dangerous! There are a lot of them around this time of year,” says Dr. Poole. Between holiday lights and wax warmers, an electric wire is an easy play-toy or potential treat to a curious cat. “They can get electrocuted if they chew on it and it can be lethal.”

Who knew National Lampoon could teach us about pet safety? Between the tinsel on the Giswold Christmas tree and the family dog getting into the trash, these are real-life scenarios that play out in every household across the country. However, it is at holiday time that we have to be extra diligent pet parents; our furry children don’t have nine lives. Everything from Dura flame logs to wrapping paper can be a hazard to our pets.

Head technician Jenn Finch turned into the Grinch when discussing the dangers of holiday decorations. 

“Long story short,” she says, “Christmas and Christmas trees can either be a blockage to the intestinal tract or toxic depending on what the animal consumes.”

Veterinary assistant Gage Leonard agreed.

“From glass ornaments to candy canes, it is gastroenteritis waiting to happen,” he says.

            If you’re anything like me, I love the holiday season and probably over decorate for the occasion. My stocking are hung, the scent of pine is wafting through the house, I have more lights plugged into an outlet than I probably should (I have since remedied that issue!), and I will admit… I have four Christmas trees decorated to the hilt from tree skirt to star topper.  I even decorated my 300-gallon fish tank and we just hung a Christmas star on our horse stable—we REALLY love the holidays.

            So how can we all safely decorate with pets in the house? What should be look out for or avoid all together? Dr. Poole, Jenn, and Gage were able to give some great pointers on some of our favorite Christmas embellishments because frankly, I have a household of 12 animals—I want nothing more than to avoid a Griswold family Christmas!

Christmas Trees:

Whether it is real or fake, it can spell bad news for your pet.  Sharp and pointy pine needles can cause severe gastrointestinal upset while fake trees are often sprayed with paints and dyes that are also harmful if ingested. Tree water can be teaming with insecticides sprayed on the trees before harvesting.

“The water is essentially a bacterial cesspool and is a GI upset waiting to happen,” says Dr. Poole.

Cats and dogs are drawn to Christmas trees due to its heady scent and shiny appeal, while the water can be accessed by both critters. You can try to deter ingestion by spraying the tree needles with Yuck spray, properly covering the tree base with either a small gate and decorative skirt, or Gage suggests keeping the tree in a room with a door than can be closed to keep curious critters out. 

“That is the most ideal scenario,” he says.


If you thought trees were bad for your pets, the things that go ON the tree can be worse! Many decorations and ornaments can cause obstructions that require immediate emergency surgery.

            “Stay away from popcorn on a string sort of thing,” says Dr. Poole, “the popcorn isn’t bad, but the string is.”

            “And NO TINSEL!” adds Jenn.

            Again, cats seem to be drawn to tinsel and shiny ornaments that dangle like a carrot in front of a horse; the attractive ‘toys’ are hard for any kitty to resist, but ingestion is very severe. The foreign body, be string or tinsel, can bunch and lodge itself in the intestine, causing an obstruction. If it is left untreated, it can be fatal. 

Dogs are not immune to the appeal of gleaming ornaments. Just last year we had a puppy make a snack of several glass collectibles. Because his owners were quick to catch him and get him to us, we were able to induce vomiting and get the foreign material out without surgery.

            “Metal and glass are radioopaque so if you think they might have eaten something… get them in for us to x-ray,” says Dr. Poole.  “A lot of the time we can do something about it before it turns into something worse.” 

            Dr. Poole suggests starting your decorations further up and off the bottom of your tree so pets cannot get to them or knock them over. All agree that the tinsel should stay in its packaging—for some reason, it really is appealing to both species.  If you have to have the burlap bows and tinsel, Gage stresses putting the  tree up in a room where the door can be kept shut! J

Christmas Wrapping:

This hazard deserves it’s own category! While it’s fun to wrap up our pet’s gifts and record them romping through the discarded wrapping from family presents on Christmas morning, the thick paper and curly bows can cause obstruction and major GI upset. If you are letting your pet enjoy the festivities, make sure you keep an eye on them and be ready to pull any wrapping from their mouths immediately.

 “A lot of the time I will, if the dogs are in the room—I have three nephews—I will give them a chew to distract them from what the kids are doing,” says Dr. Poole.

Jenn strongly warns against decorative bows. 

“Watch ribbons and strings with cats! It only takes two seconds for them to swallow it!” Jenn suggests forgoing the inciting gift toppers altogether in households where felines prowl.

“It’s the same deal with tinsel, the strings will bunch in the GI tract and cause an obstruction,” says Jenn. “If your pet gets a hold of anything resembling string, they must be taken to a vet immediately.”  

You can avoid a Christmas visit to the emergency vet by opting for plain wrapping paper and monitoring your pet’s access to the gifts. Being diligent and aware is your best defense!

Candles, Flames, and Holiday Plants:

We may not think twice about lighting candles, displaying our poinsettias, or sticking a Dura Flame log on the fire, but all of these holiday staples are harmful to our pets.

Many candles come in a wonderful array of scents and colors, all which attract our cats and dogs.

“The thing with Christmas decorations is that many of them carry a scent, such as vanilla or peppermint or pinecone scent, and so where your dog would typically leave other decorations alone, the scent can attract them,” explains Dr. Poole. “My dog has eaten candles, like straight up ate two vanilla scented candles at Christmas time! Because they smelled good, they smelled like vanilla cookies.”

Dr. Poole suggests putting candles up high so dogs cannot reach them. You can also deter cats by using Yuck spray. If you can do without the scent, but love the ambiance of candles, you can use the small battery operated flames.

“What we worry about with cats is their whiskers because cats will singe their faces as they like to sit close to the flame,” says Dr. Poole.

Dura Flame logs are another potential hazard. The roaring logs can cause severe gastrointestinal issues, vomiting, diarrhea, and if they eat a big enough piece, an obstruction. The logs smell good to dogs and while there are no materials in the fire starters that are toxic, the wood fibers are not digestible.  You can stop any late night snacking by putting up a gate or drawing the doors closed on your fireplace. You can still enjoy the flames while keeping your fur babies safe.

While you’re gating off your fireplace, you might want to think about doing the same to some popular holiday plants.

“Poinsettias are toxic to cats,” says Dr. Poole. “If ingested, it can cause severe gastrointestinal issues. We recommend not having them where cats have easy access.”

While poinsettias are generally OK to have around if your pets are being monitored, it is mistletoe we really worry about. This seemingly innocent Christmas plant contains toxalbumin and pharatoxin viscumin, both of which are toxic, bringing about labored breathing and a sudden drop in blood pressure. Holly berries don’t fare any better for our animals.

Dr. Poole and her team recommend breaking out the trusty Yuck spray if you still want to enjoy these plants in your home.

“Just be careful with the spray as some pets see it more as a condiment rather than a deterrent,” Dr. Poole explains. “Generally, it does the job well, but you just have to know your cat or dog.”

Whew! It’s a lot to remember and there certainly is a lot on this list, but supervision is the best tool to prevent holiday emergencies! We recommend for new pet owners or for dog moms and cat dads with pets that haven’t been at their house for Christmas watch how the animal interacts with the decorations. Take precautions until you are confident that your pet is safe around the house. If you start having problems, remove the item immediately and if you suspect ingestion, call us at 910-868-1164.

From all of us at Cross Creek Animal Hospital, we wish you a safe and happy holidays!

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