Holiday Hazards

By Dr. Tony Johnson

(EDITORS: Pet Connection is on vacation this week. Please use this column, which originally ran on Nov. 18, 2013. Be sure to note the changed byline for this week.)

As I strolled through the grocery store last month, I noticed that the Christmas decor was already up. In my mind, it was still summer, but apparently the good folks at my local fooditorium wanted to ring in the holidays a tad early this year. Some day, I am certain they will start putting up the tinsel in June.

The holiday season is one of togetherness, and pets are increasingly a big part of holiday festivities. During this otherwise joyous season, a few pet dangers are lurking, though. This info will help keep your pet safe during all the fun and avoid expensive trips to the pet ER.

-- Food -- The biggest holiday threats to pets come from the same threats to your waistline and chances of you fitting into your skinny jeans -- food! The holiday season is all about food (yeah, and love and family and all that other stuff, too), and there's plenty of it to be had: cookies, roast beast, puddings and more cookies. To you, it may just mean another hour on the stair stepper, but to your dog, human food can cause real problems.

Vomiting and diarrhea are common side effects from eating too much people food (the medical term we throw about is "dietary indiscretion"), and in some cases, this can proceed to a more serious condition called pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, the gland that makes digestive enzymes as well as insulin. When the pancreas becomes inflamed, it releases these enzymes and begins digesting itself. This can be a serious and painful condition that often requires hospitalization.

It is probably a good idea to either keep pets confined during any holiday parties, or make sure guests (especially kids) know not to give treats to your pets. Dogs and cats have been known to drag an entire turkey off the counter when the owner's back is turned (you know they've gotta be thinking, "SCORE!"), so make sure you stay aware of their whereabouts during meal preparation.

If you do want to include your pet in the meal and fun, stick to a bit of lean turkey and low- or no-fat veggies (no onions, though, as these can cause anemia in dogs and cats), and skip the gravy, dressing and pecan pie. Sugar-free items that contain xylitol are also toxic to pets.

-- Booze -- It is true: Don't get your Doberman drunk during the holidays (or any other time), and don't let any lampshade-wearing guests try to give your pug a mug of beer. And no one wants to see a basset with a hangover.

Your dog or cat's liver is not equipped to process alcohol, and even small amounts can be life-threatening. Put boozy party leftovers well out of reach. That includes whisky-soaked fruitcakes, trifles laced with liqueurs and the rum balls that Aunt Martha sends every year.

-- Open doors -- People come and go much more during the holidays than other times of year, and all that traffic can lead to plenty of opportunities for escape. In the ER, we see many pets who made a break for freedom when Uncle Floyd came a-callin' with his special tuna surprise. Dogs and cats can dart out the door without anyone even noticing, and there's a whole big world of hurt just waiting for them out there. Ensure that pets are safely put away when you are expecting guests, and make a nightly head count to make sure that all the furry family members are accounted for before turning in for your visions of sugar plums.

Here's hoping you have a sane season, and that all family members make it through safely, no matter how many legs they have.


Take the bite out

of an eager dog

Q: We have adopted a new dog. He is very friendly and has really great manners, except for one thing: He snatches food. A couple of times his teeth have grazed our fingers. How can we break him of this bad habit? -- via Facebook

A: That's definitely a common problem. Sometimes hard mouthing indicates a dog who is anxious, fearful or overstimulated. There are a couple of things you can try to make the situation less overwhelming for the dog and teach him to take food (and other objects) gently.

First, always deliver treats below the mouth. When you hold them up high, the dog's natural inclination is to jump up and grab. Sometimes dogs jump and bite because they're used to treats being dropped and are trying to grab them before they fall. This may call for a bit more bending on your part, especially if you have a small dog.

Deliver the treat straight to the dog's mouth. This takes practice, because sometimes it's hard to hold a treat without fumbling and starting to drop it, but once you get the hang of it, he'll be less likely to grab at it.

Another way to teach your dog to take treats more gently is what's sometimes called the "Zen" game. Place a treat on your palm and close your hand over it. Show the dog your closed hand. He will probably mouth it, but wait until only his tongue or nose is touching the outside of your hand. Then you can open it to give him the treat. The hand opens only when the mouth is gentle and soft without teeth. Let him know you like that behavior by saying "Good" and opening your palm.

When a dog mouths hard, say "Ouch!" and pull your hand away so the opportunity for the treat is lost. Try again once the dog calms down. -- Mikkel Becker

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New treatment for dogs,

humans with bone cancer

-- Bone cancer in dogs is difficult, costly and painful to treat, with a poor prognosis for most. It's also a disease that strikes humans, including children. Now, veterinary researchers at the Auburn University Research Initiative in Cancer have received a two-year, $118,848 grant to study a new treatment for canine bone cancer that may also help humans. The treatment being studied would use a modified hepatitis virus vaccine to turn cancer cells into factories that pump out more copies of the virus instead of reproducing themselves.

-- Gazing at an aquarium can be very soothing -- in fact, aquariums in dentists' and doctors' waiting rooms have been shown to reduce anxiety in patients. But at a recent infectious disease conference held in San Francisco, Dr. George Alangaden of the Henry Ford Health System told physicians that aquariums can be responsible for skin infections because of an organism known as Mycobacterium marinum. The bug has a long incubation period, and often goes undiagnosed, even though it's easily treated. So if you're dealing with a skin infection and you keep fish, be sure to ask your doctor to look for M. marinum.

-- Some cats develop tumors known as fibrosarcomas at the site of injections. Feline specialists have long recommended administering vaccinations and other shots in a cats' leg, because it's much easier to amputate a leg than to remove these tumors from between the shoulders. Now Dr. Julie Levy of the University of Florida is suggesting a new injection site: the tail tip. In a study she conducted, cats responded to vaccines given in the tail as well as they did to those given in other locations, and, she says, amputating a tail tip is very simple surgery. -- Christie Keith


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.

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