Every year at this time I offer a list of the most common holiday hazards for pets: feeding problems, foreign-body ingestion and accidental poisoning.
The bad news is that many pets will end up at the veterinarian's office this holiday season. The good news is that yours won't be among them if you keep an eye out for these potential disasters:
-- Feeding problems. How can you not slip your pet a little something special, a big piece of turkey skin, a handful of chips with dip, some slices of salami? Resist, or your pet could be spending his holiday at the emergency veterinary clinic.
Foods too rich, too fatty or too spicy -- or anything your pet is not accustomed to -- can trigger a bout of intestinal upset. For some animals, the treat can trigger a serious inflammation of the pancreas or intestines, and that means a life-threatening medical emergency.
What to avoid? Anything you wouldn't eat your pet should avoid, too. While a little bit of meat -- beef or poultry -- won't hurt and would be appreciated, steer clear of the fatty parts and the poultry skin, which also harbors fat. No one's saying your pet shouldn't enjoy a special holiday meal, too, but limiting the kind and amount of special food will ensure that it is a treat -- not a trouble.
-- Foreign-body ingestion. Poultry bones may seem like the perfect gift for the pet who has everything, but do him a favor and save them for the soup. (Broth is a wonderful treat poured over your pet's regular food.) Even the largest cooked turkey bones are prone to splintering, sending shards through the animal's intestines. The result can be deadly peritonitis.
While cooked poultry bones are out, some beef bones can be safely substituted. Knuckle bones (for large dogs) and oxtails (for small ones) stand up to vigorous gnawing, providing your pet with hours of messy fun. Check at your meat counter for these inexpensive treats. Supervise your dog's chewing, and throw them out after a few hours of attention, or if they get broken into pieces that can be swallowed.
Some dogs prefer to eat bones rather than just chew on them. And if you have one of those dogs, keep an eye out to make sure the bones aren't causing internal problems. A pulverized bone can solidify like concrete in an animal's lower intestine, causing constipation and, occasionally, blockage that must be removed by a veterinarian.
The Christmas tree is also full of hazards for dogs and cats. Tinsel can be an appealing target for play, but if ingested, it can twist up the intestines. This is a particular danger to cats and kittens, who seem to find tinsel -- along with yarn, ribbon and string -- especially appealing to eat.
Ornaments, too, are deadly in the mouths and stomachs of pets, and even the water at the base of the tree contains secretions that can, at the very least, cause a stomachache. Light strings are no good for chewing, and the whole tree can come down on the cat that climbs in its branches. The best way to handle the situation is by making the tree off-limits to your pets unless you're there to watch and keep them out of trouble.
-- Poisonings. Holiday plants such as mistletoe may look intriguing to your pet, but they're also toxic, as are the bulbs of the amaryllis plant. (Long the poster child for holiday poisoning, the falsely maligned poinsettia can be safely welcomed into the pet lover's home.) And before you share your holiday candy with your pet, be aware that chocolate is toxic to dogs, and may be deadly to the little dog who gets a good-sized piece. Again, the best cure is prevention. Keep all dangerous plants out of the reach of your pets, and keep the candy dish available to people only.
It doesn't take much to keep your pet out of trouble this holiday season, if you use just a little common sense. Instead of seeing your veterinarian in person with a sick pet in tow, send a card!
PETS ON THE WEB
The folks behind the Daily Drool (www.dailydrool.com) love basset hounds, and want to share their admiration of the breed with other like-minded people. The well-designed Web site offers everything you could want in the way of information about bassets, along with plenty of entertaining diversions such as e-cards, images and more.
What's the best way to get a basset hound into a vehicle? With a ramp, says the Drool, which offers downloadable directions on how to make one. A definite labor of love, the Web site supports itself and basset rescue through donations and by the proceeds of steering people toward Drool-endorsed books and other products. Either way, it's a good site to support, and a good cause, too.
Winterizing your car or truck? Make sure when you're taking care of your vehicle that you're also watching out for your pet. The worry? Coolant made from ethylene glycol, a sweet-tasting liquid that can be lethal to your pet in dosages as small as a teaspoon or less. Safer alternatives exist to ethylene glycol, such as coolant made from propylene glycol. No matter what you use, though, be sure to clean up any spills promptly and thoroughly, and keep any stored product in leak-proof containers in a closed cupboard. If your pet laps even the smallest amount of coolant, see your veterinarian immediately. Your pet's only shot at survival is prompt treatment, since it takes barely a sip to kill.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I'm a part-time dad, and I got my kids a golden retriever puppy so they can have the dog they've always wanted. (My ex doesn't like dogs.) The problem is, I can't get Dusty to quit biting when she plays. She doesn't mean to hurt but her constant mouthing is really annoying to me and sometimes painful to my kids. What should I do? -- N.L., via e-mail
A: If you watch a litter of puppies play with each other, you might be surprised at how rough they can be. As puppies grow older, they learn from their littermates and their mother how to restrain those playful bites, which is one reason why it's so important to leave a puppy with his canine family until he's at least 7 weeks of age.
Some puppies don't get this critical early education, and some others are just slow learners. Others still are from breeds that are known to be "mouthier" than others -- retrievers are the classic example.
You can teach your puppy to keep her teeth to herself by attacking the problem from a couple of different directions. The first would be to redirect the behavior, giving your puppy a yummy toy and praising her for chewing on something that's not a family member.
Even as you're teaching the puppy what's OK to mouth, teach her how to leave family members unchewed by making the nipping unrewarding. Every time the puppy nips, cry "ouch" in a loud voice and immediately stop the play session. Turn away and ignore the puppy completely for a few minutes. Teach your kids to do the same thing.
The message to get across: Play stops when she nips. If you're persistent and consistent, your puppy will get the message and will learn to inhibit her bites. It will also help if you make sure she's getting plenty of exercise, because sometimes dogs who don't get enough get too wound up when finally they're offered the chance to play.
If the behavior doesn't show any sign of easing, or if the biting seems more aggressive than playful, don't delay in asking your veterinarian for a referral to a behaviorist or trainer.
Q: After losing my parakeet last year to old age, I'm now thinking of getting a cockatiel. My parakeet was in a cage that was pretty large. Will that be OK for the new bird? –- K.C., via e-mail
A: The general rule of thumb is that at a minimum you should get a cage that's sold for the next size up from your bird -- so a parakeet should get a cockatiel cage, a cockatiel a cage sized for a small parrot and so on. Really, you can't get a cage that's too large, as long as the bars are not spaced so far apart that your bird can get out.
Why the extra size? Because it's boring stuck in a cage all the time, and a larger cage equipped with a rotating supply of toys and other diversions will help keep your bird in good mental health.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600