Keeping your pets safe and happy during the holidays

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The excitement of the holiday season is now upon us as we decorate our homes, make plans to entertain friends and loved ones, and purchase and wrap gifts. Today's column addresses keeping our pets safe during this hectic time of year and selecting gifts that provide them with comfort, safety and enrichment.

Tips for safe holiday decorating

  • Keep Christmas trees and holiday plants inaccessible to pets by closing doors or setting up barricades like baby gates. Trees can be knocked over and broken glass ornaments and ornaments with hooks can inflict serious wounds. Chewed light cords can cause electrocution. Tree preservatives added to water as well as some varieties of holiday plants may be toxic when ingested.
  • Don’t hang tinsel or threaded popcorn garlands on your tree because these tempting and attractive decorations can be fatal if swallowed by pets.

Tips to keep in mind if you are planning to entertain guests

  • Pets can easily escape unnoticed as guests arrive and leave your home. Pets must be constantly supervised or kept on a 4- to 6-foot leash held by an adult.
  • Keep all foods and alcoholic beverages away from pets and ask your guests to ignore your pet’s begging behavior — no matter how cute — because “people” food can cause serious digestive upsets and even death. Fatty foods like turkey skin and ham may trigger potentially fatal pancreatitis. Chocolate and coffee grounds contain a chemical which causes seizures and death.
  • After gifts are opened, immediately dispose of ribbons because they, along with tinsel and threaded popcorn garlands, may cause intestinal strangulation or blockage. If ribbon or tinsel protrudes from your pet’s mouth or rectum, cut it off but do not pull it out because the esophagus or intestines could be seriously damaged. Immediately contact your vet, as surgery may be necessary to save your pet’s life.
  • The noise level from guests — especially young children — may be too stressful for some pets. Shy or sound-sensitive pets should never be forced to interact with company because this increases their stress level and may result in a fear-biting response. Stress signals include trembling, drooling, panting, hyperactivity, hunched appearance, sweaty paws — paw prints on flooring — clingy behavior toward owners, barking, yawning, stiff movement, teeth chattering, low tail position and flattened ears.
  • To prevent the above scenarios from occurring, be proactive. Before your guests arrive, create a peaceful “safe area” in your home away from the areas where noise, guests, forbidden foods and holiday decorations are located. Select a room in which your pet’s familiar comforting possessions and necessities, such as beds, stuffed animals, food and water bowls, litter box, etc., can be placed. Play quiet music, preferably classical, which has been scientifically proven to reduce stress in animals.

Tips for buying gifts for your pets

  • Get your pet microchipped. This is the most effective form of permanent identification for pets and has reunited thousands of lost pets with their owners. This high-tech method involves the injection of a coded rice grain-sized microchip into a pet’s shoulder area. The owner must fill out a microchip registration form with all of his/her contact information — name, phone number, email address, etc. — and send it with a fee to the microchip registry. If the pet is lost and brought to a shelter or veterinary hospital in the future, a scanner will be used to determine if a microchip is present and the owner will be contacted.
  • State law requires that all dogs be licensed, so purchase a dog license annually. It could save your dog’s life if he gets lost.
  • Replace your dog’s worn-out or tight collar or choke chain, which really shouldn’t be left on a dog all the time, anyway. A nylon or cotton web adjustable snap-type collar is appropriate and comes in a variety of colors and patterns. Your dog’s identification, rabies, license and microchip tags can be attached to the collar’s “d” ring.
  • Check the condition of your dog’s leash and replace it. This is especially important if it’s frayed, damaged or too thick for your hand. The sturdiest, safest and most versatile leash is a 4- to 6-foot cotton or nylon web-type in a width with a metal clip appropriate for your dog’s size and weight.
  • For elderly or arthritic pets, consider purchasing bedding designed with cone core filling.
  • Purchase coats or sweaters for short-coated, elderly and arthritic dogs to be worn during those cold winter walks.
  • Give your pets mentally and physically stimulating toys and activities. Bored pets can be destructive, not just to your home interior but to themselves as well. Behaviors like excessive licking, scratching or chewing hair can be dangerous to their bodies. Animal behaviorists recommend that zoo animals be given opportunities to forage for their food as they would in the wild instead of feeding them from a pan or bucket. Foraging stimulates the production of the hormone serotonin, which improves physical and mental well-being in animals. This can also be applied to pets by providing them with food-dispensing puzzle toys or goody-filled Kongs. Use this feeding technique periodically instead of the usual food bowl to provide variety at mealtimes. It slows down dogs who frantically gulp down their meals, a dangerous habit that can lead to gastrointestinal disorders or choking. Treat-dispensing cat and dog toys provide enrichment by triggering the prey/play drive while also giving pets some exercise. A bird feeder placed outside of a window may provide an indoor cat with entertainment. Laser lights can “wind up” cats but must be used with care and not be flashed in their eyes.

The greatest gift we can offer our pets is quality time through direct interaction. This can be accomplished with cuddling, massaging, grooming, playing gently, going on leisurely on-leash walks, teaching and reviewing basic obedience skills using positive techniques — food or toys as rewards — or simply talking to them! Our pets deserve these gifts throughout the year.

A happy and safe holiday season to you and the animals who grace your life!

Iris Katz is an educational facilitator and board member for the Humane Society of Carroll County. Send your pet questions to