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Keep pets safe during the holidays

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Just as parents child-proof holiday homes, pet owners should do some pet-proofing to ensure a happy, safe holiday season.

Dr. Mark Russak, a veterinarian in the Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine’s Primary Care clinic, said the main mistake pet owners make during the holiday season is feeding their pets leftovers and other unhealthy treats.

“It’s often all too easy to reward our pets’ unconditional adoration by giving them all the holiday leftovers. This is not a good idea, even if the intent is good,” Russak said. “A little bit of lean turkey mixed with regular food is not problem — with an emphasis on the ‘little’ — but all too often it is the fatty leftovers and bones that end up down on the floor for our ‘other’ children.”

Bones may be the most tantalizing leftover treat for pets, but they also are the most dangerous. Small bones or bone chips, particularly those from birds, can get lodged in an animal’s throat, stomach and intestinal tract, sometimes requiring surgery to remove. These bones also can splinter and form needle-like shards that can slice pets’ stomachs or intestines.

“Symptoms of a lodged bone may not show up for several days. They include loss of appetite, depression, vomiting or diarrhea. If there is a perforation of the intestine, pets will experience those same symptoms, plus sudden, severe abdominal pain from infection, which can lead fairly rapidly to death,” Russak said.

Fats and scraps can cause severe stomach upset in pets. Candy also will cause stomach upset, and chocolate can even be fatal to pets, particularly cats and small dogs. Keep holiday chocolates out of reach of curious pets; many can get into boxes of chocolate under the tree or on the coffee table, even if they are wrapped.

“Another problem that affects pets just as it does humans is the problem of holiday foods that sit out for long periods as people nibble,” Russak said. “Food poisoning caused by the Salmonella organism is always a threat when food sits out at room temperature or if it is not cooked thoroughly. If it can make a human sick, it will make your pet sick, as well.”

Symptoms of Salmonella poisoning are similar to those for bone obstruction but also include high fever.

Other holiday festivities and traditions also can present hazardous situations for pets. Holly and mistletoe are poisonous when eaten, and the poinsettia’s sap and leaves can cause severe stomach upset. Tree preservatives, sugar or aspirin placed in the holiday tree’s water can cause intestinal upset and should be kept out of pets’ reach.

“Also, if you have a tree-climbing cat or a large dog with a happy tail, anchor the top of the tree to the wall with a strong cord or rope,” Russak said. “Tinsel and ornaments can also harm pets.”

Substitute chains of shiny, silver stars or plastic icicles for tinsel. Keep breakable ornaments and small decorations out of reach. Be sure to secure holiday light cords and keep them out of the way.

Lighted candles left at a kitten’s eye level or within a puppy’s chewing zone can quickly become disastrous. Russak advised anchoring candles securely away from curious pets.

Stress also is an issue for pets whose homes may be invaded by unfamiliar sights, sounds and people.

“With everyone coming and going, watch out for open doors, and make sure your pet has a collar and tag on, or consider having your pet microchipped, in case of an escape,” Russak said. “Some pets may need a quiet place to retreat if the festivities get too stressful.”

The holiday season often inspires people to give pets as gifts, but CVM veterinarian Dr. Thomas Lenarduzzi said this often is unwise.

“If the person really wants a pet and you know it, it’s one of the most wonderful gifts you can give. But if you don’t absolutely know the person wants a pet and exactly what kind of pet they want, it’s not a good idea,” Lenarduzzi said. “Unlike other gifts, you can’t say, ‘That’s not really the gift I wanted.’ You can’t exchange it or put it away in a cabinet.”

Pets require an enormous amount of responsibility, and a person cannot make that decision for someone else, Lenarduzzi said. Specific issues to consider regarding pet ownership include providing adequate health care and preventative health maintenance, being able to spend adequate time with the pet and creating a safe environment. Lenarduzzi also said owners should have pets spayed or neutered.

Children often ask their parents for non-traditional pets like reptiles, ferrets, parrots, rabbits and guinea pigs. While these can be good pets, Lenarduzzi said parents must consider the specific requirements of the pet.

“Maintenance for exotic pets is a little higher than for dogs or cats. Most have special nutritional and environmental requirements,” he said. “Do your homework before buying any pet, but especially an exotic pet.”

Consider the typical life span of pets and how that may affect children. For instance, some parrots can live 50 to 70 years; on the other hand, ferrets rarely live longer than eight years.

Parents also must think about what type of pet will fit into the family’s lifestyle. Lenarduzzi advised against large breed dogs for families with very small children.

“One of my rules is that you shouldn’t give an animal decision-making power when it comes to the health of your family. If that animal is having a bad day or is sick or hurt, and a child pulls on its ear, the instinct could be to snap at what hurt it,” Lenarduzzi said. “Also, very small children don’t understand the concept of injury, and they could actually seriously hurt a small animal without intending to.”

-Dr. Mark Russak, -Dr. Thomas Lenarduzzi

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