Pet Safety Tips for the Winter Holidays

“Parties with family in icy cold weather
Foil-wrapped fruitcake that looks like old leather
Chocolate and lilies and gifts wrapped with strings
These are a few holiday pet hazardous things”

Every season has its holidays that present potential health hazards to our pets, but winter is seemingly the most hazardous as owners must plan for the safety of our canine and feline companions during Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s, or whatever holiday your family commemorates.

Winter holidays permit friends or family to cheerfully congregate, but a mere few oversights on our part can lead to life-alerting health consequences for the pets that share our homes.

One of the main means by which pets suffer trauma or develop illness stems from their interactions with holiday decor or consumption of festive foods. Although candles, lights, garland/tinsel, potpourri, plants, and other decorations brighten our holidays, they can pose serious dangers for animal family members. Additionally, foods that people consume with zero to minimal consequence (perhaps but for hangovers and those few inches added to our waistlines) can make a pet quite sick.


  • Candles – Candles pose hazards to the entire household, as even a moment’s contact with the flame could ignite your pet’s coat and cause first, second, or third-degree burns. If a pet knocks over a candle or runs through your house while on fire, flammable materials can ignite and facilitate the spread of flames from floor to ceiling and beyond. Scented candles (cinnamon, fig, vanilla, etc.) emit attractive aromas that may prompt your pet to take a taste and can cause gastrointestinal upset (vomit, diarrhea, decreased appetite, etc.) if consumed.
  • Lights – Strings of electric lights tempt many pets, especially our feline friends. Burns to the gums, tongue, mouth and life-threatening heart and lung damage are associated with electrical cord bites. Plus, a pet’s legs or neck could be caught up in a string of lights, leading to restricted blood flow (like a tourniquet) to the affected limbs or strangulation of the neck.
  • Garland and Tinsel – Shiny metallic or plastic garland and tinsel are notoriously hazardous for pets when ingested due to the high-likelihood of causing gut-associated ailments. Linear foreign bodies, where one end of the strand anchors higher up the digestive tract in the stomach or upper small intestines and the free end continues down the lower small intestines or large intestine (colon), are notorious causes of emergency room visits and exploratory surgeries. The intestines continue to contract and bunch up around the linear foreign body, which saws into the sensitive tissues lining the intestines and reduces blood flow to the affected sites. Although cats have a reputation to more-curiously explore a tree’s tinsel and develop linear foreign bodies, dogs are also prone to suffering ill effects.
  • Potpourri – Liquid potpourri that emits a scent when heated by a flame can cause corrosive burns to both cats and dogs even if only a small taste is taken, and severe organ system damage to cats can occur if consumed.


A wide variety of festive foliage is common to our winter holidays, with some of them being toxic. Yet, just because a particular plant is non-toxic doesn’t mean it won’t make your pet sick post-ingestion. Here are some common holiday plants, the companion animal species to which they cause harm, the toxic principle, and the likely clinical signs.

  • Amaryllis – toxic to cats and dogs. Toxic principle: Lycorine which causes salivation, gastrointestinal upset, lethargy, and tremors. The bulb has greater toxic potential than the flowers and stalk.
  • Christmas Cactus – non-toxic to cats and dogs, but still capable of causing gastrointestinal upset.
  • Holly – toxic to cats and dogs. Toxic principle: Saponins (soap-like chemicals called glycosides) can cause gastrointestinal upset and lethargy.
  • House Pine – toxic to cats and dogs. Toxic principle: Unknown. Ingestion of pine needles can cause gastrointestinal upset and lethargy. Tree water may contain bacteria, fertilizer, molds, or other substances that cause gastrointestinal upset.
  • Mistletoe (American or European) – toxic to cats and dogs. Toxic principle: Oxalbumin and pharatoxin viscumin in berries or leaves lead to severe gastrointestinal upset and cardiovascular (low blood pressure, low heart rate, etc.) and neurologic (collapse, unusual behavior, etc.) abnormalities.
  • Poinsettia – nontoxic to cats and dogs. Poinsettia gets a bad rap as being a highly-toxic seasonal plant, but it’s not completely innocuous as the latex-like sap contained under the skin’s surface can cause salivation and gastrointestinal upset.


  • Chocolate and SweetsChocolatecontains chemical stimulants called methylzanthines (caffeine and theobromine) which are slowly metabolized by the lies of our canine and feline friends. Ingesting even small amounts of chocolate can cause a variety of clinical signs, including gastrointestinal upset, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, hyperexcitability, seizures, and others. Baking and dark chocolate have more cocoa per volume and harbor greater toxic potential in smaller amounts than milk chocolate. White chocolate lacks stimulants, but it still can cause gastrointestinal upset due its high sugar and/or fat content and should not be shared with pets.
  • Dried Fruits – Raisins (and the grapes from which they originate) have an unknown toxic mechanism which can damage canine and feline kidneys. The quantity needed to cause toxicity is uncertain, but larger volume of raisins generally correlates with a higher likelihood for kidney damage. Since raisins and grapes harbor such toxic potential, it’s best to keep them out of your pets reach. Additionally, store-bought dried fruits may contain preservatives (sulfur dioxide, etc.) or other sickness-causing contaminants (bacterial or mold based toxins). Seasonal fruitcake often has raisins, other dried fruits, and alcohol, so sharing a slice with your pet is generally a bad idea (unless it’s The Honest Kitchen’s recipe for Holiday Fruitcake for Pups).
  • Nuts – Although nuts have numerous nutritional benefits, they are dense in calories and fat. Oil-cooked nuts have even more fat than their raw or dry-roasted forms. As with animal proteins and fats, our pets consumption of nuts may cause gastrointestinal upset. Added salt, flavors, and preservatives may also contribute to illness. Macadamia nuts have a unique toxic effect for dogs and produce ataxia (difficulty walking), especially in the hind limbs.
  • Animal Proteins and Fats – Animal proteins and fats aren’t directly toxic for our pets, but they are laden with calories, fat, and protein. Offering what only appears to be a small amount of muscle meat, skin, or dairy products (cheese, cream, etc.) for a person may quickly exceed your pet’s daily caloric requirements. Plus, if your cat or dog’s digestive tract is normally acclimated to processing dry kibble or canned pet foods then human foods can cause gastrointestinal upset including pancreatitis (an uncomfortable inflammation of the pancreas.
  • Bones Bones may be “all natural” and tasty temptations for our pets, but they commonly cause gastrointestinal upset or damage teeth. Cooked bones crack or shear when chewed and consumption of bone fragments mechanically irritate the stomach and intestines. Large or multiple bone pieces commonly cause foreign body obstruction of the esophagus, stomach, or intestines.

When it comes down to it, not celebrating winter holidays may be the best means of preventing trauma or illness for our pets. Having sterile households and hosting non-celebratory gatherings isn’t realistic for most cat and dog owners, so it’s best to carefully plan ahead for pet safety for the holiday season. Here are my top tips:

  • Keep your pets away from decoration and food-filled rooms or only permit their entry when a responsible adult is present Consider using a collar or harness attached to a leash to restrict their access and provide redirection from holiday decor.
  • Use positive reinforcement to train your pets to avoid decorations and foods. Interest in plants, lights, festive foods, etc. can be diverted using pet-appropriate food, treats or a stimulating toy.
  • Use battery-powered, flameless candles instead of flammable votives to ensure a safer environment for both pets and people.
  • Bundle together electric cords and apply pet-safe deterrent sprays (Bitter Apple, vinegar, etc.) to deter entry into curious mouths.
  • Elevate all food to heights out of your pet’s each (at least to counter level) and keep edibles in sealable containers.
  • Before a holiday plant enters your home check out its toxic potential via the APSCA Animal Poison Control If you suspect or know your pet has consumed any toxic substance call 888-426-4435 to start a case file and determine if a trip to the veterinary hospital is needed.

Meet the Author: Patrick Mahaney

Dr. Patrick Mahaney VMD, CVA, CVJ is a veterinarian and certified veterinary acupuncturist providing services to Los Angeles-based clients both on a house call and in-clinic basis. Dr. Mahaney’s unique approach integrating eastern and western medical perspectives has evolved into a concierge house call practice, California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness (CPAW), Inc. Additionally, Dr. Mahaney offers holistic treatment for canine and feline cancer patients at the Veterinary Cancer Group (Culver City, CA).

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