Life Skill #21: Keeping a home safe for pets

With the holiday season approaching comes its attendant tree trimmings of glimmering glass ornaments and tinsel so shiny it looks good enough to eat. That is, from a cat's perspective.

"I've had to remove tinsel from more than one animal, and that's more than one animal than I would like to have to deal with," said Mark Russak, retired veterinarian and immediate past president of the American Animal Hospital Association.

For nearly 25 years, Russak treated pets for common household injuries at the AAHA practice he owned in Kensington, Conn.

When it comes to keeping pets safe at home, common sense "is really what it boils down to," he said. Russak shared some advice on harmful household items, foods and plants that could threaten the well-being of cats and dogs.

Degree of difficulty: Easy

Household items: "Anything that's small that can fit in a dog or cat's mouth will end up inside a dog or cat's mouth," Russak said. Some items to look out for include rubber bands, balloons, cigarette butts, sewing needles, string, ribbons, even pantyhose. Also keep pets away from:

Plastic shopping bags: Small pets, particularly cats, can get inside of them and suffocate.

Anything hot: Irons, space heaters, coffee pots — anything that heats up — can be dangerous; curious pets can jump on them. Also, it's wise to seal off fireplaces with a screen while they're in use.

Chemicals: Use child locks on cabinets. Don't let pets near disinfectants and other chemicals such as ant houses and rodenticides, snow-removing salts, lawn chemicals and, especially, antifreeze. There are some chemicals labeled "pet-safe," but Russak advises keeping all chemicals out of reach. "Dogs and cats are curious," Russak said. "Any kind of spill, they're going to lick up."

Unsafe snacks: Russak said it's best to avoid feeding human food to pets, but if you're going to do it, do so in moderation. "Anything toxic to dogs is toxic to cats, but cats have more discerning palates" (and so are less likely to consume something toxic). However, some foods should never be given or made available to a dog or cat, Russak said:

Meat fat and bones: Though dogs like to chew on bones, the sharp edges can cut their intestines. Additionally, any kind of fatty food can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Also, avoid feeding them anything spicy.

Chocolate: It's a stimulant that can cause heart and intestinal issues in pets. "(Pets are) going to eat the wrapper and all — it's not going to matter to them," Russak said.

Grapes and raisins: Certain toxins in the fruit can cause kidney failure and other problems that can be lethal in dogs.

Precarious plants: The list is long. Among the most poisonous: azaleas (heart failure, death), lilies (kidney failure, death in cats), oleander (muscles tremors, heart failure), daffodils (tremors, cardiac arrhythmia) and milkweed (kidney/liver failure, death).

"Some (plants) are very toxic, and some just cause nasty (gastrointestinal) upsets," Russak said.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has a list of unsafe plants at

Call the vet: If you think your pet is in serious danger, call your veterinarian or an animal emergency hospital immediately. "Animals can't speak for themselves," said retired veterinarian Mark Russak. "You're their keeper. They deserve, and we owe them, the best medical care we can."

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