Hazardous Holiday Decorations: Physical Hazard

By Dr. Lucy Pinkston

Last week we discussed holiday plants and greens that may be poisonous to your dog. This week we point out hazards of a different sort: those that may be physically harmful. These include ornaments that can be chewed and swallowed, decorations that may electrocute or burn, and objects or substances that can cut, puncture, or irritate skin, eyes, or mucous membranes. Decorations that seem very innocent to an untrained eye may, in fact, be extremely dangerous.

1) Glass bulbs and ornaments
2) Tinsel, ribbon, and other string-like decorations
3) Pine needles
4) Electric lights
5) Candles (and hot wax)
6) Hot cider or other hot drinks
7) Small decorations and ornaments
8) The Christmas Turkey!
9) Hooks and wires

(1) G L A S S B U L B S & O R N A M E N T S

Some cats and dogs, especially youngsters, seem to find glass bulbs and glass ornaments irresistable. They see them as toys and know nothing of their potential danger. There are two dangers: If chewed, the object can splinter. If swallowed whole, it can lodge in the intestinal tract. Ideally, one avoids these risks by keeping all such decorations far out of reach of pets, even if they stand on their hind legs to reach them. However, what do you do if you learn this lesson too late and come home to a "raid" on the Christmas tree? Step one is to check the dog's entire mouth for blood, cuts, or glass splinters and to flush the mouth to remove any remnants. Step two is to call your veterinarian's office for guidance. Step three (unless you receive other recommendations from your vet) is to soak in water 2-3 individual cotton balls (or 1/2-balls, for cats or small dogs). Use real cotton, not synthetic cotton. Compress each piece of wet cotton into the shape of a pill and administer it as a "pill" by pushing it down the throat. The cotton fibers can sometimes gather up safely small glass shards that may have lodged in the esophagus. Step four is to give the dog a generous portion of high-fiber bread: 1/2 loaf for large dogs, 1/8 - 1/4 loaf for small dogs. You may put egg yolk on the bread to make it more palatable. After this, for at least 3 - 4 days, watch for the following "danger signs": (1) blood in or near the mouth or rectum; (2) pale gums (note: look at them NOW, so you know what is "normal" for your dog); (3) repeated episodes of vomiting; (4) straining during a bowel movement; (5) "hunched-up" stance, lowering of the forequarters (lower than the hindquarters), repeated glancing at or nipping at the side of the body, and other indications of abdominal pain; or (6) absence of bowel movements. Any of these signs could indicate a problem which might require early veterinary intervention: call your vet right away.

(2) T I N S E L , R I B B O N & S T R I N G D E C O R A T I O N S

Any long, flexible, linear object, when swallowed, can cause an extremely dangerous type of intestinal obstruction. Ribbon and other similar items can stretch out in the tubular intestines and bunch up the "tube" like an accordion as the body attempts to pass it. The force of intestinal contractions can be so strong that the string-like object can actually "saw" through the wall of the intestines. This situation can be, not only painful, but deadly! A fatal peritonitis (from infection) may rapidly ensue. If you see a string, ribbon, piece of tinsel, or similar object protruding from your pet's rectum or mouth, do NOT attempt to tug on it! It may go in much farther than you think and it could be very dangerous to pull it. If you suspect that your pet has swallowed one of these items, what do you do? If it has been swallowed within the past 1/2 hour, it might help to induce vomiting in order to bring it up before it has left the stomach and entered the intestinal tract. However, you should consult your vet first. If longer than 1/2 hour, the best thing to do is to monitor for signs of obstruction and/or abdominal pain (see #1) and to call your vet right away.

(3) P I N E N E E D L E S

For dogs, pine needles are not poisonous but can cause some mechanical GI problems if too many are swallowed. They can be toxic to cats, however, because pine oils are toxic to cats. If a dog swallows only a few needles, you may see some vomiting and diarrhea. If a large number are swallowed the GI problems may be more severe, to the point of an actual stomach or intestinal impaction. If you see persistent vomiting, signs of abdominal pain (see #1), loss of appetite, or absence of bowel movements, call your vet right away.

(4) E L E C T R I C L I G H T S

Electric lights can be hazardous for several reasons. They can cause electrocution or serious electrical burns; the glass bulbs can be chewed and splintered or swallowed whole (see #1); and the cord on which the lights are strung can become a dangerous linear foreign object of the type discussed above (see #2). Signs of electrocution are typically a sudden onset of severe respiratory difficulty: the mouth may be open in an effort to obtain more oxygen; the tongue and gums may be purplish in color; and there may be foamy mucus or phlegm around the mouth or nose. Any of these signs requires immediate veterinary care and probably oxygen administration. Signs of an electrical burn are usually associated with the mouth, because the usual scenario is one of chewing an electrical cord; the mouth is thus the point-of-contact with the electrical current. Electrical burns may cause excessive salivation, swelling of the tongue; difficulty swallowing; and ulceration of the tongue or lips, to the point where the tissue may die and slough off. Treatment for these burns tends to be lengthy and painful. It is far better to err on the side of caution when stringing lights as decorations.

(5) C A N D L E S

Candles, in addition to being a serious fire hazard if knocked over by a curious canine, can be a source of severe burns. Most dogs are sensible enough to move their nose if foolish enough to stick it in the flame! However, it is easy for a dog to knock the candle over and get hot wax into his eyes or on his fur. This can cause a serious burn. Keep these decorations well out of reach.

(6) H O T C I D E R & O T H E R H O T L I Q U I D S

Just like candles, any scalding hot liquid can cause a severe burn if turned over by a nosy dog who is trying to investigate whatever is on the table or serving tray. Never underestimate the lengths to which a hungry or curious dog will go when following good smells with his nose!

(7) S M A L L D E C O R A T I O N S & O R N A M E N T S

There are many small decorations and ornaments which may not be made from hazardous materials but can easily be chewed up and swallowed or even swallowed whole. Symptoms are similar to any other intestinal "foreign body" (see #1). Watch for vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, or absence of bowel movements.

(8) T H E C H R I S T M A S T U R K E Y !

Turkey itself is not necessarily dangerous, but dogs who eat too much turkey fat or chew on turkey bones may run into serious trouble. Bones can splinter and lodge in the esophagus or elsewhere in the GI tract, possibly causing a puncture, laceration, or obstruction. Never allow your dog to chew on these bones (or any other type of bone that could splinter--the only bone that is safe for most dogs is a dried, processed, beef shin bone, available at pet stores.) Gorging on turkey fat (or any other fatty food) can cause a painful, sometimes life-threatening attack of pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) in susceptible individuals, with subsequent leakage of digestive enzymes and severe secondary infections. If your dog does manage to gorge on a turkey carcas, do NOT induce vomiting. Vomiting bones can cause a dangerous esophageal laceration. To induce vomiting in a dog that has eaten too much fat actually INCREASES the risk of pancreatitis, rather than decreasing it. The safest approach (other than avoidance!) is to give high fiber bread (see #1) and to monitor carefully for vomiting, abdominal pain (again, see #1), difficulty swallowing or defecating, diarrhea, or persistent excessive salivation. If you see any of these signs, call your vet right away.

(9) H O O K S & W I R E S

Hooks and wires can be very dangerous if chewed or swallowed. They may puncture the mouth or GI tract, causing serious injury or even death. If your dog has chewed or swallowed a sharp metal hook or wire, check the inside of the mouth first, including the underside of the tongue. If you think anything may have been swallowed, do NOT induce vomiting. Instead, proceed according to the instructions given above, in #1, and monitor carefully.

S U M M A R Y..........

Holiday time can be very hazardous to your pets unless some careful thought is put into the plans for decorating and entertaining. Some very simple precautions can make this season safe and fun. Please be careful!

vet@dog feedback:
In response to a growing number of questions about feeding and dietary issues, we have decided to devote the entire month of February to nutrition: we will discuss dog foods, diet changes for health problems, behavior problems related to feeding, hazardous foods, and other issues. Here is a sampling of some of the questions received in the past week:
"Tyia" Why do dogs eat their own feces? Are they lacking nutrients? How does one stop this habit?
"Erin" "What foods do we eat that our dogs can't?"
"Anusree" Dealing with a pick eater who won't eat on his own.
"Susan" Is turkey harmful for dogs to eat? (see Above)
"Danielle" The type of diet recommended for diabetic and borderline diabetic dogs. "Are there any low sugar brands on the market?"

Question about Mange:
"Lisa" is having a problem with mange on her boxer puppy and was asking for more information on mange.

There are two types of "mange" in puppies: the kind caused by Demodex mites and the kind caused by Sarcoptes mites. They are very different from each other.

Demodectic mange is transmitted only from a mother dog to her pups and only during the first few days of life. After that time it is strictly non-contagious. It occurs commonly in adolescent dogs and usually is seen as one or two isolated bare patches on the skin. This form is self-limiting and goes away with or without treatment. A more generalized form of Demodectic mange is more serious and indicates a genetically transmitted immune deficiency that allows the mite to reproduce in many areas of the skin. This form is more difficult to treat. The "standard" treatment of a series of dips of a solution of amitraz (sold as "Mitaban") may not be effective in all cases. However, recent treatment protocols calling for long-term oral administration of either ivermectin or milbemycin have shown improved success. Demodex mites are usually diagnosed by doing a skin scraping and examining the scraped material microscopically.

Sarcoptic mange (often referred to as "Scabies") is contagious between dogs and from wild foxes to dogs. It is rampant in the fox populations in the mid-atlantic states, for example. Early symptoms of Scabies are very difficult to distinguish from other causes of skin irritation, such as allergic dermatitis. Although an official diagnosis can be made only by a skin scraping, the mite is extremely difficult to find, even with numerous scrapings. Most veterinarians diagnose Scabies based on its various "typical" symptoms: (1) It is extrememly itchy, even when the dog has been given prednisone (or another steroid); (2) It usually starts at "ground contact points," e.g. the back part of the lower legs, elbows, and lower abdomen; (3) It frequently progresses to the margins of the ear flaps, where it is so itchy that a fingernail scratching the ear margin will often induce a "scratch reflex" with the back leg; (4) It tends to cause marked redness of the affected areas; and (5) it may be contagious to other dogs or humans in the household but NOT to cats. Sarcoptic mange is sometimes treated with strong sulfur or certain insecticidal dips, but its most common treatment in all except collies and collie-type dogs (where the treatment may be toxic) is injectable or oral ivermectin. There is an alternative protocol for collie types using milbemycin, the active ingredient in Interceptor heartworm pills (but using a different dosage regimen).

copyright & disclaimer
Information and opinions stated are for educational purposes only, should not be used for diagnosis or treatment, and are not intended to replace advice and/or treatment provided by your veterinarian. Dr. Pinkston disclaim responsibility for the consequences of any action you may or may not take based on this information. Please consult your veterinarian for specific advice and treatment of your dog.