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Keep your pets safe from harmful human food this holiday season

The excitement of the holiday season is now upon us. But as we prepare for entertaining guests and serious feasting, we must also consider the health and safety of our pets when food is part of the festivities.

There are several food items and ingredients — holiday and non-holiday — that are potentially harmful and even deadly to pets.

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• Fatty foods do more than just contribute to obesity, which is the leading cause of health problems in pets. Drippings from a turkey, ham or roast beef poured over a pet's food or fat trimmings added to a pet's meal may cause not only diarrhea, but more serious effects, too, including potentially fatal pancreatitis with symptoms that include lack of appetite, abdominal pain, vomiting, depression, weakness, hunched appearance, drooling, fever and collapse. Immediate veterinary intervention would be warranted in such a dire case to save a pet's life.

• Chocolate and coffee grounds both contain the chemical theobromine that may cause seizures and death and requires immediate veterinary attention. The caffeine content in both products, as well as in teabags, can cause caffeine toxicity with symptoms that include increased and erratic heartbeat, elevated blood pressure and temperature, and seizures, according to Caroline Coile, author and two-time winner of the American Kennel Club's Canine Health Foundation Award.

• Grapes and raisins can cause acute kidney failure in dogs and produce symptoms like diarrhea, lethargy, increased thirst, abdominal pain and vomiting that might occur hours to days after the dog has eaten them.

• Alcoholic beverages can kill dogs and cats because the animals are far more sensitive to alcohol than humans. According to www.petmd.com, as little as one tablespoon of alcohol can cause an adult cat to go into a coma and a bit more results in death. Coile adds that cough medicine and raw yeast, found in unbaked bread dough, can also be sources of alcohol.

• Apple seeds and stems, as well as pits from peaches, cherries, apricots and plums, contain cyanide, which deprives a pet's brain and heart of oxygen, causing shock and death.

• Onions and garlic destroy red blood cells in dogs and cats resulting in anemia. If an animal's red cell count becomes too low, the blood is unable to deliver oxygen to the cells which can result in a pet's death.

• Macadamia nuts can make dogs sick, with symptoms including severe lethargy, vomiting, increased temperature, tremors, stiffened joints, and loss of limb control — particularly the rear legs — for two days after consumption.

• Xylitol, a popular artificial sweetener, can trigger hypoglycemia or liver failure in dogs and can be found in candy, gum, peanut butter — often used for administering pet medications — toothpaste and other products. Xylitol poisoning symptoms include weakness, tremors and seizures within 30 minutes after consumption. Liver failure signs might surface eight hours later and can be fatal. A vet must be contacted immediately if a dog is suspected of consuming anything containing xylitol.

• In large amounts, nutmeg can cause increased heart rate, disorientation and sometimes seizures.

If you are planning to entertain guests, keep the following tips in mind to keep your pet safe and to prevent a toxic food tragedy from occurring:

• Before guests arrive, take your dog for a walk to allow him to relieve himself and "burn off" some energy.

• Keep your dog on a leash and under your control if you are allowing him to interact with your guests.

• Inform all guests to ignore a pet's begging behavior, no matter how cute or plaintive, because "people food" can cause serious digestive upsets and even death.

• Ensure that all foods and alcoholic beverages are inaccessible to your pets.

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• Ask guests to place their closed handbags out of reach of curious animals. Cats are attracted to the scent of mint found in gum and breath-freshening mints that may contain xylitol.

• Mingle with your guests and monitor their interaction with your pets. There may be someone who will ignore your rules and try to sneak a treat to a pet anyway. This task may be difficult if you have a large crowd.

Probably the most effective safety measure to take during holiday gatherings is to provide your pets with a quiet "safe area" in your home away from the food, guests and noise. Select a room containing your pet's familiar comforting possessions and necessities. To keep a dog comfortable, provide him with his crate or comfy dog bed, food, water, a frozen goody-filled stuffed Kong or treat dispensing toys that may keep him occupied. Cats will require a clean litter box, food, water, safe toys and bedding, but we all know that cats choose anyplace they want to be for a nap! Turn on a radio or CD player playing quiet music, preferably classical, which is scientifically proven to reduce stress and have a calming effect on animals.

Wishing you and the pets who grace your life a happy and safe holiday season.

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