Cats, dogs and Christmas ... What could possibly go wrong?

TEMPTING: Cats are attracted to the shine and sparkle of decorations, so keep them out of reach.
TEMPTING: Cats are attracted to the shine and sparkle of decorations, so keep them out of reach.

Being a veterinarian gives one a different perspective on things.

My pre-veterinarian self looked at tinsel and saw a shiny decoration.

Now I look at tinsel and imagine having to surgically retrieve it from the intestines of a curious kitten who swallowed it days earlier.

Pre-vet me would salivate over artisanal dark chocolate, but when you've induced vomiting in a Labrador who has just eaten two kilograms of the stuff to prevent subsequent life-threatening chocolate toxicity, it loses its shine a little.

Instead of hitting up the Boxing Day sales, thousands of veterinary team members around Australia will be rolling up their sleeves to treat a range of companion animals who overindulged on Christmas Day.

Put it this way, if I had to choose a day to wear a ball gown to work, Boxing Day would not be that day.

The good news is that festive hazards are largely predictable and therefore avoidable.

Here are a few:

Rich, fatty foods

These are in abundance at family gatherings, and often placed on low-lying tables like the kids' table or the coffee table, or placed - unsupervised - on a bench or BBQ. Ham, lamb, turkey, sausages, cheese, gristle, crackling and meaty bones can trigger gastroenteritis or even pancreatitis in animals. Signs include vomiting, diarrhoea, reduced appetite and abdominal pain. Guests may not appreciate your pet's dietary limitations, and may feed this novel and highly-tempting food in large amounts. You would be amazed at just how many people a single animal can convince to give them "just a bit" of sausage at one party. Never assume that just because something is on a hot plate or cooling on a bench that an animal won't attempt to eat it.

Onions and garlic 

These cause severe, potentially life-threatening anaemia when eaten in reasonable volumes (for example, a plate of onions or onion bhajis), particularly in small dogs. Signs include pale gums, weakness, fatigue or breathlessness. Some affected animals need a blood transfusion.

Grapes and sultanas 

These can cause acute kidney failure in dogs. The toxic dose is not known, therefore ingestion of very small amounts is a concern. In animals that have eaten grapes or sultanas or foods containing them (or as some of my larger canine patients manage if given the option, a whole fruit platter), veterinary attention should be sought immediately as treatment is most successful before signs occur. Signs include increased thirst and urination, vomiting and lethargy.

Stone fruit and corn on the cob 

These should be avoided because of the potential for stones or corn cobs to physically obstruct the intestines.


Chocolate contains toxins like theobromine which affect the heart. The darker the chocolate, the more toxic. Chocolate toxicity can be life-threatening. If your pet ingests chocolate, contact your vet immediately. They will ask you roughly how much chocolate you think your pet has eaten. As with grape and sultana toxicity, veterinary attention should be sought before signs occur. Signs include vomiting, diarrhoea, tremors and seizures.

Christmas decorations

Cats are especially prone to ingesting decorations, particularly those incorporating string, tinsel or wire. These can become caught in intestines, leading to severe pain and vomiting, and require surgery to remove. Keep decorations out of reach of animals.

It pays to keep an eye on pets during festive gatherings, and be mindful how you dispose of rubbish afterwards. That way you and your pets can enjoy the holidays without the bellyache afterwards.

Dr Quain BVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), Dip ECAWBM (AWSEL) is a lecturer at the Sydney School of Veterinary Science and a practising veterinarian.