Pet Tales: Holidays can be hazardous for pets

Every year when we decorate the Fuoco family Christmas tree, I feel a little pang when I hang two special ornaments, each made of wood. One is a baseball bat, about 6 inches long, and the other is Mickey Mouse. They take me back to 1994 when Dante Fuoco was 4 years old and our chocolate Labrador retriever was 4 months old.

Our son named our puppy Mickey, in honor of his favorite Disney character, and picked out the Mickey Mouse ornament. His father and I bought the little bat because Dante would be playing baseball in the summer.

Fragile glass and china ornaments were hung high on the tree, beyond the reach of Mickey's constantly wagging tail. The mouse and the bat hung on bottom boughs. When I packed them away in January, both were pock-marked with little holes made by sharp puppy teeth.

"That's OK Mommy," said Dante, always quick to defend the dog. "This will always remind us of Mickey."

So much has changed since then. Dante, 22, graduated from Swarthmore College last May and moved to New Orleans for a teaching job. Mickey died nine years ago. The chewed-up wooden bat and Mickey Mouse are hung on each year's Christmas tree.

Because of Mickey, we never put tinsel on our trees. Experts say tinsel is dangerous for dogs and cats.

Lists of holiday hazards seems to get longer each year, including Christmas trees, live plants, popcorn and cranberries strung on garlands, shiny glass tree ornaments, wires on strands of holiday lights, lit candles, fireplace fires, ribbon and wrapping paper, holiday visitors, and rich and fattening foods, including chocolate, butter and gravy.

Real Christmas trees, holly and mistletoe can be dangerous, says a news release from the American Kennel Club. "Consider having an artificial Christmas tree, but if you do have a natural one, make sure your dog doesn't swallow the pine needles or drink the tree water, which can cause stomach irritation."

The registry for purebred dogs failed to warn that cats can climb Christmas trees and pull them over. Cat owners are supposed to anchor their trees to the wall, but I'm not sure how you'd do that.

Decorations made with food can be enticing to dogs, especially puppies. Garlands of cranberries or popcorn, if eaten, can cause blockages, which can require surgery to remove.

I'd add gingerbread men and cookie ornaments to that list. Dogs will eat them, even if they are old, stale and coated with varnish or some other preservative.

Cats have better sense than dogs when it comes to eating stupid things that could hurt them. The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center reports that since 2002, 83.6 percent of calls were about dogs and 13.9 percent were for cats.

But cats will tangle with tinsel, yarn and ribbons. (See Pet Points today for a veterinarian's first-hand experience with surgery to undo the damage.)

Visiting friends and relatives can be hazardous to the health of your pets. They can leave doors open for too long, causing great escapes. They may feed candy and other treats to cats and dogs, and that could cause vomiting, diarrhea or worse. Fatty foods such as butter and gravy can lead to pancreatitis -- a serious internal inflammation that can rack up big vet bills.

Experts are standing by telephones 24/7 to answer questions and concerns about holiday hazards. They're often able to save you a trip to your veterinarian.

Chocolate has been the most common poison threat to pets, with 41,946 calls in the past 10 years, according to the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. The darker the chocolate, the more toxic it will be. Prompt veterinary intervention can avert disaster. Symptoms include vomiting, drooling, shivering, diarrhea, lethargy, agitation, thirst, elevated heart rate or seizures.

The ASPCA center, founded in 1978, reports it has just handled its 2 millionth case -- a call about a domestic longhair cat whose owner suspected exposure to a new houseplant. Over the years new toxins have emerged, including lilies, grapes, raisins and one I've never heard about -- fireflies.

Tape these phone numbers to your refrigerator. Credit cards are needed to pay for a telephone consultation at the first two, which are staffed by veterinary toxicologists. Calls to the Pittsburgh Poison Control Center are free.

ASPCA 1-888-426-4435. Cost is $65.

Pet Poison Helpline, affiliated with the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, 1-800-213-6680. Cost is $39.

Pittsburgh Poison Control Center, 1-800-222-1222. Although primarily a service for people, the staff handles more than 7,000 calls about pets each year. If they can't help, they'll refer you to the ASPCA or an emergency veterinarian.

Last Chance Adoptions?

"Spend your last moments with a furry friend," says the tongue-in-cheek flier for the "End of the World Adoption Special" on Dec. 21 at the Animal Rescue League Shelter & Wildlife Center.

Because some say ancient Mayan calendars predicted the world will end Dec. 21, 2012, the Larimer shelter is offering special adoption rates on that date: $20.12 for dogs and no fees for cats. If life goes on, the special rates will continue for the rest of the year.

Pet Tales appears weekly in the Saturday Home & Garden section. Linda Wilson Fuoco: or 412-263-3064.