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Cold weather and holidays can present unexpected medical problems for pets and their owners, said Dr. Dianne Mawby, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Cold weather brings with it added concerns for pets, not only because of the temperature, but due to items we inadvertently introduce into the pet’s environment during winter months and the holidays,” she said. Holiday decorations, harmful foods and plants, heaters and cold-weather care of vehicles are among those potentially dangerous to animals.

“One of the most common emergencies we see during the winter is illness or death of animals due to ingesting antifreeze,” said Mawby. Because antifreeze is sweet, cats and dogs often lick any that has leaked from vehicles onto pavement or the ground. This can be deadly to animals and requires immediate treatment by a veterinarian. Owners should be aware that pets and other animals sometimes sleep under warm car hoods and can be caught in fan belts when the vehicle is started, she said. Cats and dogs using garages for shelter can also suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning if vehicles are left running in the enclosed garage for extended times.

Animals living outside need access to additional food and water during exceptionally cold weather. Water bowls should be checked often since water may freeze rapidly at extremely low temperatures. Pet owners may also purchase at pet supply stores heated water bowls which prevent water freezing during cold months.

During the holidays several items pose problems for pets, said Mawby. Holiday decorations can be harmful, especially to cats who may ingest tinsel or other materials. Large amounts of foods such as turkey can be harmful, sometimes causing pancreatitis in pets. Chocolate is particularly dangerous to dogs, which can die if they consume certain amounts of chocolate. Mistletoe, holly berries and poinsettia plants can also be dangerous to cats and dogs, causing conditions ranging from skin irritation to cardiac stimulation. Christmas greenery such as balsam, juniper, cedar pine and fir are also moderately toxic and Hibiscus may cause vomiting or bloody diarrhea.

Traveling with pets requires additional planning and, depending on destination, calling state officials to determine what health certificates are required when transporting animals across state or international borders. It is best for pet owners to contact their regular veterinarian to determine what special needs their pets may have when traveling.

Pet Precautions and Care During the Holiday Season and Cold Weather

Suggestions from the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine

*Cold Weather
*Feeding Animals Table Food
*Harmful Items
*Traveling with your Pet

Cold Weather

Most pets regularly living outside can exist in cold weather, if they have proper shelter and access to food and water. The temptation to bring animals inside periodically during cold weather may reduce their ability to use their natural devices to stay warm. Allowing an animal access to exterior buildings, typically not as warm as home interiors, may be an option. Extreme cold, however, may require adding additional shelter, such as blankets and straw in dog houses and protecting dog house openings from wind.

Pet owners should be aware of several dangers associated with allowing animals in garages–the danger of dogs and cats licking anti-freeze, which is typically deadly to animals, the danger of people starting their cars to warm for a period of time, which can expose pets in an enclosed garage to carbon monoxide poisoning, and the danger of accidentally backing over a pet with a vehicle. Owners should be aware that pets and other animals sometimes sleep under warm car hoods and can be caught in fan belts. Thumping the hood before starting the car is advisable.

Animals living outside need access to food and water. Exceptionally cold weather may result in water bowls freezing rapidly. Pet owners should check water bowls several times daily to make certain fresh water is available to dogs and cats.

Dogs living inside may need to wear a protective sweater when going outside during exceptionally cold weather, since they are accustomed to warmth inside. Dogs normally living outside do not need additional apparel, because of their heavier coats.

Feeding Animals Table Food

Animals’ systems are sensitive to diet, and when their diets are limited to dog and cat foods, introducing food from the table suddenly can cause serious problems. Some foods in very limited amounts (just a bite or two) may be acceptable. The tendency to give the family dog large amounts of leftover turkey can sometimes be harmful, causing pancreatitis–a serious and often deadly condition in dogs. In addition, dogs and cats can easily choke on poultry bones, which can also splinter and cause intestinal damage. As a substitute treat, owners may provide pets with turkey-flavored canned pet food.

Chocolate is a particularly serious problem for dogs. A 20 pound dog which eats a pound of chocolate can die. Smaller dogs can be impaired from less amounts. Dogs can be easily tempted to eat chocolates within their reach, so pet owners should place bowls of these candies in an area where their dog (or conspiring cat) cannot reach them.

Harmful Items

The holidays and cold weather provide many harmful temptations to cats and dogs. One of the most dangerous plants to animals is mistletoe. Ingesting the berries from holly can cause mild cardiac stimulation in animals. Poinsettia plants can cause severe irritation and blisters if animals chew the leaves. Cats can spread the irritants during their regular bathing activity, rubbing their faces with paws with poinsettia sap on them. Washing the irritated areas with warm water can relieve mild symptoms, but animals experiencing vomiting or diarrhea should be treated by a veterinarian because of the possibility of dehydration. Angel hair (spun glass) decorations may also cause severe eye, skin and gastrointestinal irritation.

Tree decorations such as tinsel and icicles are not only tempting for cats to play with, but also tempting for them to ingest. Cats ingesting tinsel or icicles may require surgery because these objects can become wrapped within the intestine. Wrapping paper and ribbon should not be utilized as toys for dogs or cats and ribbon or yarn should never be tied around a pet’s neck.

As mentioned previously, anti-freeze can be lethal to cats and dogs. Some environmentally safe anti-freeze options are now available. Kerosene heaters can also pose a problem for inside pets because they may be more rapidly exposed to carbon monoxide.

Traveling With Your Pet

Pets frequently accompany pet owners on trips during the holidays, but certain considerations must be made for traveling animals. Make certain your cat or dog is wearing a collar with your phone number, including area code.

If traveling by car, make certain your pet has enough room to move around. It is best to place pets in a roomy pet carrier; if they are not in a carrier, animals should be confined to back seats, not in the laps of the front seat passenger or driver. Animals can be seriously injured in accidents by being crushed between the front seat passenger and the dash. They can also contribute to accidents if roaming around the driver. Stop every couple of hours and allow your pet to exercise or attend to other needs. Provide access to water, or place one or two ice cubes in your pet’s water bowl in the vehicle. Animals sometimes become dehydrated from excessive panting on a trip in strange surroundings.

If traveling by air, contact the airline well in advance to determine its specific regulations. Retrieve your animal promptly upon its arrival at the airport.
Current health and rabies vaccination certificates are required for air travel.

Consult your veterinarian to determine if your animal may require any tranquilizing medication, which should be used only when absolutely necessary.
Whether traveling by air or car, carry appropriate certifications of vaccinations. You may be asked by authorities to produce rabies certificates or other health
certificates when crossing state lines or international borders such as Canada and Mexico. To determine health requirements when traveling state to state, call
615/360-0120; for international requirements, call 615/781-5310.

Boarding your pet while you travel also requires some planning. Animals should be current on all vaccinations, including vaccinations for “kennel cough” to protect your animal from being infected with this infectious condition.

If you have any questions, please consult your regular veterinarian.

Copyright 1999 The University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine