Food! Decorations! Parties! However you plan to celebrate this year, learn how to keep your pet safe with this winter holiday survival guide.

By Debra Steilen
October 14, 2020
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You love the holidays, but to your pet, they’re just regular days filled with chaos and forbidden foods. These holiday safety tips can help you make Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s Eve safe, happy times for everyone. And it all starts by considering your furry friends when you plan your celebrations.

Avoid Holiday Food Hazards

Ignore those puppy dog eyes and that cat winding his way around your ankles and put the people food where pets can’t get it. Rich, fatty dishes; turkey bones and skin; chocolate desserts; candy; anything sweetened with Xylitol; and alcoholic cocktails are only some of the foods your pets should be denied in order to avoid gastrointestinal distress (upset stomach, diarrhea, and vomiting), pancreatitis, and other painful conditions. Keep phone numbers handy for your vet so you're prepared in case your pet ingests something potentially hazardous, and give ASPCA’s animal poison control hotline a call at (888) 426-4435 if your pet sneaks something he shouldn't off the counter.

Convinced your four-legged friend is suffering from only a mild upset? “Make sure he has plenty of water and give him at least 6 hours without food to rest his belly,” says Douglas Kratt, DVM, president of the American Veterinary  Medicine Association (AVMA), and co-owner of the Central Animal Hospital in La Crosse, Wis. “But reach out to your vet to make sure this advice is good for your pet.”

Reduce Christmas Tree Trauma

Christmas pet safety likely starts with the tree. Just like us humans, dogs and cats are fascinated by these pine-scented wonders. But keep the set-up safe by evaluating the environment your pet will experience, according to Kratt. “For example, if you feed your pet popcorn 11 months out of the year, he’ll eat stringed popcorn on the Christmas tree,” Kratt says. “And cats and dogs don’t know that if they break ornaments, the shards may cut their paws or the inside of their mouth if swallowed. So think about the consequences before you start decorating.”

It might also help to use an artificial Christmas tree, or to look for a live tree with pet-friendly, pliable needles—such as a Douglas fir or white pine—whose needles won’t stick in your pet’s paws. Secure your tree with a sturdy base and a line that attaches it to the ceiling so it won’t get knocked over. Display fragile ornaments where pets (or their tails) can’t break them and step on or lick the shards. Keep wires and batteries far away from furry paws. And definitely don’t add anything to tree-stand water since a dog or cat may try to drink it.

Prevent Gifts from Being Eaten

Cats and dogs are so fascinated by ribbon (and tinsel, for that matter) they may be inclined to eat it. Ribbon and tinsel can be especially dangerous for our furry friends because ingesting those hazardous materials often requires surgical removal by a vet. So think about your pet’s safety when it comes to presents. Stash unopened gifts where pets can’t reach them. Either ban ribbons and bows from making their way under the tree, or be ready to throw gift wrap in a garbage bag as soon as presents are opened. Take care of materials like styrofoam, bubble wrap, and tissue paper right away, too. Pets can choke on packing peanuts or shredded paper.

Put Holiday Plants Out of Reach

Look out for lilies! Cat owners should be especially careful with these toxic flowers. If ingested, some varieties can cause kidney failure. And while kissing under the mistletoe is romantic, keep in mind that if your pet gets their paws on it, this plant is toxic to both cats and dogs when eaten—leading to gastrointestinal upset and cardiovascular problems. Holly can also cause pets to suffer nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. You should also take care around poinsettias around cats and dogs. Either move these decorative seasonal plants to a place where your pets can’t get at them, or make the most of artificial silk or plastic pretenders.

Keep Cats and Dogs Away From Candles and Scents

Think twice about using real candles, which are fire hazards that are easily knocked over by curious pets. Plus, your pet can get singed brushing up against the flame. The best candles may be the kind you plug in or that use batteries. If nothing will do but the glow of real flames, make sure your candle holders or menorah are sturdy and set upon stable surfaces. If pets are hanging around, put out the flames when you leave the room.

American Humane also warns against indulging in your love of essential oils and potpourri sachets in the pursuit of the ultimate holiday house. Exposure to these can damage your pet’s skin or mouth and may cause illness or even death if ingested or inhaled.

Throw a Pet-Safe Party

With holiday entertaining comes new people and adjustments to your pets' routines. Visitors, noises, and schedule changes may upset your cat or dog. “People start thinking about being perfect hosts and don’t realize what the consequences are for their pets,” Kratt says. “Some dogs and cats love having people over. But others don’t appreciate having their personal living space invaded by people they don’t know.”

If you are planning a holiday get-together, try to respect your pet’s nature and don’t make him mingle if he’d rather hide out in a safe space. Ask any guests to refrain from giving your pets food from their plates. Watch the exits to keep dogs and cats from making a break for it when guests enter or leave. (On a related note: Make sure your pet has been microchipped and is wearing an ID tag to increase the chance he’ll be returned to you if he sneaks out.) Ban helium balloons that may scare your pal if they pop or cause choking when pieces are swallowed after being mistaken as food.

While it's tempting to want to bring your pet along for all the celebrations, leave your pup at home if you head out to watch fireworks displays and leave your cat indoors. Try to take your dog on potty breaks early in the evening before most fireworks go off. Minimize flashes of fireworks—which can heighten pet anxiety—by blocking windows or moving your dog or cat to a room with limited views. Provide high hideaways for cats to use as retreats.

Set Up a Safe Space for Your Pet

How do you know your pet is frightened? “He’ll retreat a bit, vocalize, and stay closer to you,” Kratt says. If this is the case, keep him calm by putting him inside a spare room where you can block out noisemakers, loud music, and flashing lights. Play soothing classical, reggae, or soft rock music (check Spotify for music especially geared to dogs or cats), or dampen scary sounds with a bubbling fountain, fan, or white noise machine. Use pheromone sprays or plug-ins (Adaptil for dogs; Feliway for cats) to bring a sense of calm to the room.

For dogs with severe noise anxiety, try compression garments (e.g, ThunderShirt) that provide gentle pressure that induces a feeling of wellbeing for some dogs and cats. You may even want to consider taking your pet to a boarding facility instead of asking him to put up with a party or the neighborhood fireworks display.

Consult Your Veterinarian

The best way to preempt fear is by talking to your vet ahead of time about medications or supplements to help your pet relax. Your vet may advise working with a veterinary behaviorist or fear-free, positive reinforcement trainer who can help you ease a pet’s fears in advance.

“Pet care is a partnership,” Kratt says. “Reach out to your veterinary team with your questions or concerns to solve these issues on behalf of your pets.”

A version of this article first appeared in Happy Paws Fall/Winter 2019.