Holidays aren’t always merry for pets

The holidays present numerous opportunities for pets to ingest toxic substances and foreign objects or otherwise get hurt. According to pet health insurance companies, claims increase around Christmas, Halloween and Easter, with claims linked to ingestion of chocolate, candy or raisins by dogs far more likely Dec. 21-31 than the rest of the year, according to Petplan Pet Insurance. Dogs are of particular concern. “Dogs will eat almost anything,” said veterinarian Jules Benson, Petplan’s vice president of veterinary service. “Cats tend to be much more discriminating.” The Hartford Courant (Conn.)/Insurance Capital blog

JoAnne Lipsy came home one day in April 2011 to find that her 5-year-old golden retriever-pitbull mix, “Sascha,” had scarfed down a dark-chocolate bar that Lipsy’s mother set on the couch.

“I came home, found a wrapper on the floor, and realized it was dark chocolate, which is more lethal than other chocolate,” said Lipsy, who lives in Bloomfield. “I knew, once I saw the wrapper, it was an emergency situation. I knew that she would die if I didn’t do something.”

Lipsy rushed Sascha to an emergency veterinary hospital in Avon.

“I didn’t wait for her to vomit, and she vomited in my car — chocolate everywhere, in between the seats. It was horrible,” Lipsy said.

Chocolate and other types of candy are toxic to dogs. Every Christmas — and other holidays when candy abounds — pet owners dash to veterinary emergency-care rooms after their dogs scrounge around and gobble chocolate, baked goods with raisins or other things that are toxic to them. In high doses and left untreated, candy can cause serious damage to a dog’s kidney, pancreas or liver.

Insurance companies that sell pet insurance see a rise in claims during Christmas, as well as Halloween and Easter. Philadelphia-based Petplan Pet Insurance, for example, analyzed claims and found that those related to dogs eating chocolate, raisins or candy are 284 percent more likely between Dec. 21 and Dec. 31 than the average of other days in the year.

For Lipsy, her visit to the veterinarian resulted in a $769 claim with her pet insurer, Petplan. The average claim cost to pay for a veterinary visit was $487 during the holiday season, said Jules Benson, a veterinarian and vice president of Veterinary Service at Petplan.

“Dogs will eat almost anything,” Benson said. “Cats tend to be much more discriminating.”

The average claim for Seattle-based Trupanion Pet Insurance is about $430 and can be more than $1,500 according to Trupanion’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Kerri Marshall.

“In our experience, Christmastime has been the biggest time for chocolate ingestion, with Halloween coming in as number two in chocolate-related claims, followed closely by Easter,” Marshall said.

“Chocolate contains caffeine and theobromine which are poisonous to dogs and cats,” Marshall said. “Darker chocolates are more dangerous because they contain more of these stimulants and smaller dogs and cats often show more severe signs than bigger dogs. When a pet consumes chocolate, it may show signs of vomiting, diarrhea and increased heart rate.”

‘It’s Not Just Chocolate’

The holidays come with all sorts of food people eat that can be toxic to dogs and cats.

“It’s not just chocolate,” Elisa Mazzaferro, a doctor of veterinary medicine, and Ph.D, who specializes in emergency and critical care at Cornell University Veterinary Specialists on Canal Street in Stamford.

Pets also shouldn’t have table scraps, including turkey drippings or bones, veterinarians say. Even seemingly innocuous things like sugar-free candy can be dangerous.

“Sugarless gum products contain something called Xylitol,” Mazzaferro said. “That can cause a massive release of insulin from the pancreas in dogs and cause their blood sugar to drop to the point of having seizures. Some dogs can get liver failure from it.”

Xylitol also can be found in other sugarless products, like candy for diabetics, said Benson, the veterinarian at Petplan Pet Insurance.

Grapes and raisins can cause kidney failure in dogs while macadamia nuts can cause temporary paralysis, Mazzaferro said.

In March, Ann Dowd of West Haven stepped out of her kitchen for a few minutes, and her 5-month-old New Foundland, Bruno, leaped up and started gobbling two batches of bread dough that were on the kitchen counter. One batch had yeast and another batch, of Irish soda bread, had raisins.

Ordinarily, Bruno would be kept in a crate if Ann was out of the room, but she stepped away only briefly.

“He destroyed everything,” Dowd said.

“We were so scared,” Dowd said of herself and her husband, Tim. “I read somewhere about raisins. I couldn’t recall.”

She called the New Haven Central Hospital for Veterinary Medicine on State Street, and the staff told her to bring Bruno in because of the raisins and yeast. Bruno stayed several days overnight in a veterinary bill that resulted in a $1,188 insurance claim, not including hundreds of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses.

Often when dogs eat something toxic, they are admitted for surveillance and veterinarians use a carbon-based substance to filter out toxins in the animal’s body, said Mazzaferro, the Stamford veterinarian affiliated with Cornell.

Christmas can be an unusual spectacle to pets, festooned with glittery things to chew or bat around.

Cats may not be likely to eat chocolate, but they often are attracted to tinsel or ribbons. For example, the pet insurer Trupanion paid a claim for a 5-month-old cat that ingested some ribbon and needed $2,800 of veterinary care to have it surgically removed.

“A large tree suddenly showing up in the living room will seem odd to pets,” said Marshall, Trupanion’s chief veterinary officer. “Expect them to want to climb it, chew on it, knock it over, potentially on top of them or breaking ornaments leaving glass shards to step on, or urinate on it — trees are commonly used for scent marking.”

Trupanion recommends pet owners think of ways to ensure the safety of their animals, such as putting a Christmas tree behind pet gates or up on a tabletop, if the tree is small enough.

Probably the best known caveat to pet owners is about poinsettias toxicity to cats and dogs. The bright red flowers often used to decorate around Christmas can be irritating to a pet’s stomach and mouth, sometimes causing vomiting, but the toxicity is “generally over-rated,” according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Lilies are more dangerous than poinsettias.

“Lilies can cause kidney failure if animals eat the leaves, stems or any part of the flower,” said Mazzaferro, the emergency and critical care veterinarian at Cornell University Veterinary Specialists in Stamford. “Mistletoe can cause vomiting, diarrhea, low blood pressure, and collapse … English holly can cause vomiting, diarrhea and tremors.”

Cyclamen is sometimes used as a decorative Christmas flower, and it can cause vomiting, diarrhea, salivation and potentially death if an animal ingests a large amount, Mazzaferro said. Another popular holiday flower, Amaryllis, can cause vomiting, diarrhea, salivation and tremors.

Pet owners and veterinarians have different strategies and suggestions about keeping animals from toxic treats. For Lipsy, whose dog ate chocolate, she doesn’t leave anything tempting anywhere near “nose level.”

“We have a strict rule now that there is no chocolate out in the house, on a counter, or anywhere, if she can get within reach of it,” Lipsy said.

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