Taking Care of Pets at the Holidays

Posted October 29, 2007 2:36 p.m. EDT
Updated November 14, 2007 1:48 a.m. EST

Thanksgiving is for family. So if some of your family is four-legged, it seems only right to share with them too.

But the results aren't always festive, as Sandi Garcia of Denver learned the hard way on her first with Holly, a golden retriever. Just before dinner, Garcia set down a lovely plate of turkey and stuffing topped with gravy.

"She gulped it down in two seconds flat. Then we humans sat down and said grace," says Garcia. "Just as we were about to dig in, Holly appeared in the dining room and proceeded to throw up her entire turkey dinner in front of all the guests."

Fortunately, Holly didn't suffer any long-term consequences. The same couldn't be said for the holiday meal.

"Needless to say, nobody had an appetite after that and dinner was served as leftovers the next few days - when we could stomach it."

Holly's reaction isn't surprising. Giving dogs food they aren't used to, even a new kind of dog food, can easily lead to an upset stomach, says Dr. Ken Drobatz, director of emergency medicine and professor of critical care at the University of Pennsylvania veterinary school hospital. More serious problems, both long-term and emergency, also can occur when pets help devour the holiday meal. Exercise both caution and moderation to keep your pet safe for many holidays to come.



"Too much fat is associated with pancreatitis, which can result in mild vomiting to potentially life threatening illness," Drobatz says. So don't give pan drippings or gravy, and it's safest to remove turkey skin, which is fatty. And be very careful not to let your pets get at the bones. "Turkey bones can splinter. They can stick in the esophagus, where they are hard to get to - it can be really serious."

Another potential risk is onions in stuffing or side dishes. "Lots of onions can cause red blood cells to break down and cause anemia. Even onion powder can be dangerous."

Drobatz cautions that cats are more sensitive than dogs to toxins such as those in onions. Fortunately, cats don't tend to overindulge in strange foods as much as dogs do.

But be cautious, because you never know what an individual cat will get a taste for, as Dawn Lamb of Mountain View, California, discovered one year when her mother went to the kitchen to get the pumpkin pies that were cooling on the counter.

"Sitting on the counter was Cloyd," the family's Siamese mix, "face down in the center of one of the pies, eating his way to the edges."

Cloyd was fine - he died in his sleep many years later at age 20 - but the family learned its lesson. "From that time on my mother kept the pies covered, but always saved a slice for Cloyd," says Lamb.

Grobatz says that side dishes like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin are probably safe, but, he emphasizes, "in small amounts. Not a whole pan of it."



For dogs - who tend to eat first and ask questions later - the danger can be not just food, but anything that has come into contact with food.

"We've seen dogs eat toothpicks and then months later they cause serious abdominal problems. Sometimes it isn't immediately evident. They can migrate to other organs in the abdomen."

The problem was certainly immediately evident to Christi Lopez of Fremont, California, last year, when her Airedale terrier Abbey swallowed a 4 1/2-inch inch metal turkey skewer that had fallen on the floor.

"I tried to pry her mouth open. It was like trying to pry a vise open," says Lopez. Realizing the dog had already swallowed, she raced to the vet, where surgery was done to remove the skewer - which now hangs on the vet clinic wall as a souvenir.

Abbey was fine, but Lopez was grateful that she'd just renewed the pet health insurance she had bought through the American Kennel Club: The bill for the surgery was more than $2,000.

Lopez says that Abbey is the smartest dog she's ever known. But dogs rarely think before they eat.

"She's so smart you can just see her reasoning things out - but not very smart when it came to the turkey skewer."



So prevention is obviously the key.

Lopez is working on training Abbey not to lie on the kitchen floor, where things are dropped. And don't turn your back on that spread of leftovers - your pet may be capable of surprising feats when inspired by food, as Gary Sand of Lindale, Texas, found one year when he returned to the table he was clearing and found only one turkey drumstick where, minutes before, there had been two. Also missing in action was his maltese, Sassy.

"I looked all over for her, and finally found her under a bed on the opposite end of the house. She was hugging her monster drumstick and feasting like a gluttonous little queen."

Sassy had somehow gotten the drumstick - which he guesses was half her weight - off the table and dragged it across the house. And she didn't give up her hard-won prize without a fight.

"I took it away from her, and it was the only time she ever bit me."