Emergency veterinary clinic are often pretty exciting places, even over the holidays. While staying busy makes the time go by more quickly, I'd bet that the staff of most emergency clinics would rather not spend their time trying to save the lives of pets who may not have been there if their families had been a little more cautious. As any veterinarian will tell you, prevention is always better than a cure.
And that's why 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. Let the veterinary staff play cards this year instead! Avoid emergencies by steering your pet clear of these holiday hazards, which sicken or kill countless pets at this time of year:
-- Food dangers. Anything that's rich, fatty or spicy can trigger a bout of intestinal upset for your pet. For some animals, a fatty treat can trigger a serious inflammation of the pancreas or intestine, either of which can kill.
What to avoid? While a little bit of meat won't hurt, steer clear of the fatty parts and the poultry skin, which also harbors too much fat.
Watch those candy dishes, too, and keep them out of reach from your pets. No candy is "good" for pets, and chocolate can be lethal.
-- Foreign-body ingestion. Cooked poultry bones are prone to splintering, sending shards through the animal's intestines. Should one pierce through the lining, the result can be deadly peritonitis.
While cooked poultry bones are out, some beef bones, raw or cooked, can be safely substituted, under supervision. 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 the meat counter for these treats. Throw out bones after a couple hours of chewing, or if they get broken into pieces that can be swallowed.
The Christmas tree is 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, can be 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. Strings of light are no good for chewing, and the whole tree can come down on a cat climbing in its branches.
The best way to handle tree hazards is by making the room with the Christmas tree off-limits to your pets unless you're there to keep them out of trouble. If that's not possible, consider putting some kind of barrier up to keep pets away when you can't be watching.
-- 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.)
Be sure holiday greenery passes the safety test, and don't let the whirl of the holidays allow you to let down your guard when it comes to protecting your pet from toxic household chemicals.
The final part of preventive care is knowing what to do in an emergency. Do you know where to take your pets when your regular veterinary hospital is closed for a holiday? Do you have the phone number? Take a few minutes now to make sure you have the answers, just in case.
A while back I mentioned a new online magazine for dog lovers, The Daily Dog (www.thedogdaily.com), put out by the same talented woman, Beth Adelman, who also edits The Daily Cat (www.thedailycat.com). Adelman has now come out with an entertaining book that looks at feline care from a cat's point of view. The spin on "Every Cat's Survival Guide To Living With a Neurotic Owner" (Barnes and Noble Books; $7) is that the author is Adelman's cat, Yin Yin, who answers questions from other cats about what their owners are doing wrong. The concept could get old in fast order, but Adelman pulls it off in fine style, with witty, well-written answers packed with up-to-date information on nutrition, behavior and much, much more. A real find, and a great bargain!
PETS ON THE WEB
If you're not sure about what can be toxic to your pets, you might want to review the information on the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center Web site (www.aspca.org/apcc). The APCC is where veterinarians call when they need quick answers for patients who've been poisoned, and the information provided to the general public on toxic plants and products is the best you'll find anywhere. It's also a good place to check out Internet rumors, such as the ones circulating in recent months concerning cocoa hull mulch and grapes/raisins. Yes, says the APCC, you need to keep all this stuff out of your pet's mouth.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Would you please introduce your readers to an emergency animal disaster-response group called Noah's Wish? The organization is a national nonprofit that exists solely for the purpose of disaster response and preparedness in regard to animals.
The Noah's Wish team was on-site in Southern California assisting with more than 1,000 animals affected by the fires. Working in conjunction with the local animal-control agencies, Noah's Wish has organized and implemented an emergency animal shelter and provided services such as in-field rescue, day-to-day care, food, cleaning, medical attention and procurement of supplies to dogs, cats, horses, goats, turtles, rabbits, chickens, ducks and various other animals.
The director of Noah's Wish, Terri Crisp, has more than 20 years of experience in disaster response in relation to animals. She has two books published relating her stories of more than 50 disasters worldwide. Noah's Wish also recently returned from assisting animals endangered by fires in Canada.
I believe your readers would be interested in the information that Noah's Wish has provided on their Web site. There are step-by-step instructions on preparing for the worst and information on the services Noah's Wish can provide during a disaster. -- J.M., via e-mail
A: Terri Crisp is one of those people who have made such a huge difference for animals that she changed the culture. When I started writing this column, disaster experts would be dismissive of my attempts to get information on helping animals. The prevailing attitude: "We're not here to help animals. Animals don't matter. Leave 'em a bag of food and get your family out."
Years ago, I pointed out to a disaster-response expert that in fact many people consider their animals to be part of their families. His response, as I recall, was something along the lines that if such people didn't understand that animals were just, well, animals, then they deserved what they got trying to save their pets.
I can't imagine anyone saying that now. Because of people like Terri Crisp, disaster planning and response now includes animals, in part because of the recognition that people do consider animals to be part of the family and will risk their lives to save their pets.
Mind you, Noah's Wish does not suggest anyone put their lives at risk. The group strongly encourages all animal lovers to prepare themselves with the supplies and knowledge needed to evacuate their two- and four-legged family members before they are in danger. Noah's Wish will walk you through the steps of emergency preparedness on its Web site (www.noahs-wish.org; click on "Being Prepared"). To reach Noah's Wish, write to P.O. Box 997, Placerville, CA 95667 or call (530) 622-9313.
Incidentally, Terri Crisp's books are well worth seeking out. They're great reads!
Q: I know you're written about the trend toward spaying puppies and kittens. What happened to the old advice about letting them have one litter first? -- S.H., via e-mail
A: That advice, like so many old chestnuts regarding pets, had no evidence behind it. Animals do not need to be bred once for any reason, and there are many good reasons for them to be neutered before reaching sexual maturity. Of course, preventing litters helps with the pet overpopulation problem, but neutering helps each individual animal by eliminating or reducing the risks of some cancers, and preventing or reducing some behavior problems.
In short: A neutered pet is a better pet, and the sooner the deed is done, the better.
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. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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