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Veterinary Teaching Hospital

As you begin to pull down the holiday decorations from the attic and stock up on holiday treats, keep in mind some of those items may be dangerous for your pets.

Below are some common health hazards for pets during the holidays:

Tinsel, ribbon, and other pretty things

Ribbons, wrapping paper, ornaments, tinsel, extension cords, and gifts can add to the holiday spirit in your home, but they can also be appealing “chew toys” that may make your pet sick.

Cats, in particular, can’t help themselves when it comes to shiny strands of Christmas tree decor. Although the sight of your cat pawing at the tree may be cute, the ingestion of tinsel can be deadly.

Eating tinsel or other string-like items can cause serious damage to the intestine. One end can get stuck while the rest is pulled into the intestine as it contracts. The contractions may cause the ribbon or tinsel to saw through the intestine. If not caught in time, infection of the belly cavity develops and the prognosis for recovery becomes poor. Pets can become quickly ill, with signs including vomiting, diarrhea, depression, belly pain, and fever.

Holiday lights

Decorative lights are another attraction for pets to chew on. Both indoor and outdoor lights should be carefully examined to ensure safety for your household pets. Electrical shock may occur from defective cords or from pets chewing on them. Check cords for any signs of bite marks, loose or frayed wires, and evidence of a short circuit. Use grounded three-prong extension cords and strictly follow manufacturer guidelines.

Electrical shock can cause burns, difficulty breathing, abnormal heart rhythm, loss of consciousness, and death. Call a veterinarian immediately if your pet has been injured by an electrical shock.

Water

Even though they have their own water bowl, there is something enticing about a novel source of water; whether it’s the toilet bowl or the Christmas tree stand. If you add chemicals to the water meant to keep your tree fresh longer, be sure to read the label to make sure it is safe for pets.

Overindulgence

Well-intentioned family and friends may share holiday foods with pets, causing the animal to develop an upset stomach or something worse, like pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), which can be caused by eating fatty foods. To control excessive food intake by your pets and meet your guests’ desires to feed the pets, dole out the treats your pets would normally receive and let your guests “treat” the pets.

Chocolate

What would the holidays be without boxes of chocolate and warm cocoa in front of the fire? Unfortunately, chocolate can be toxic to dogs and cats. Chocolate poisoning occurs most frequently in dogs, but other species are also susceptible.

The toxicity of chocolate depends on the amount and type of chocolate ingested. Signs that may appear within 1 to 4 hours of eating chocolate include:

  • Vomiting
  • Increased thirst
  • Diarrhea
  • Weakness
  • Difficulty keeping balance
  • Hyperexcitability
  • Muscle spasms, seizures, coma
  • Death from abnormal heart rhythm

Call your veterinarian or an emergency veterinary hospital or the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital at 509-335-0711 immediately if you suspect your pet has ingested chocolate. Have the product label information available when you call your veterinarian. In general, the treatment of poisonings is most effective if started soon after eating the poison and before large amounts are absorbed into the blood.

Poinsettias and mistletoe

Poinsettias have received bad publicity in the past, but they are not very toxic to pets. They do contain a milky sap that can irritate the mouth, but symptoms are usually mild if they develop.

Mistletoe can be very toxic to animals, and you should seek veterinary consultation immediately if your pet has potentially ingested any part of the plant. Mistletoe can cause vomiting, severe diarrhea, difficulty breathing, shock, and death within hours of ingestion.

There are many species of holly (genus Ilex) berries and leaves that can be a problem, although signs of poisonings are generally mild (vomiting, belly pain, and diarrhea).


This information is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care. Always follow the instructions provided by your veterinarian. Washington State University assumes no liability for injury to you or your pet incurred by following these descriptions or procedures.

Close up image of cat's face.
photo attribution

Giving a cat oral medication isn’t always the easiest task, but by remaining calm and following the guidance below, you can make sure your pet gets the medications it needs.

Your veterinarian will tell you if your cat’s medication should be given with food or on an empty stomach. If the tablet or capsule can be given with food, you may make a “meatball” by placing the medication in the center of a small ball of canned cat food or cheese.

Cats are more likely than dogs to chew their food, so felines often eat the “meatball” and spit out the tablet or capsule. This causes the tablet or capsule to partially dissolve and become difficult to handle. If the cat bites into the tablet or capsule, it will leave a bad taste in its mouth and likely make a second attempt more difficult.

The following instructions will help you give medications if a “meatball” doesn’t work for your cat. Use caution to avoid being bitten. A cat’s mouth contains many bacteria and bites can result in deep punctures. If bitten, clean the wound thoroughly and seek medical attention.

Medications for oral administration may be in pill, capsule, or liquid form.

Giving a cat pills or capsules

Hold the cat’s head from the top using your left hand if you are right-handed. The cat’s cheekbones provide a convenient handle to hold the head firmly without causing discomfort.

Tilt the head back and the cat will often drop its lower jaw open.

Hold the pill or capsule with your right hand between your thumb and index finger. You can use a remaining finger on your right hand on the lower incisors to keep the lower jaw open. Keep your finger over the small incisor teeth and not over the sharp fangs (canine teeth). Drop the pill or capsule as far back over the tongue as possible, then immediately close the mouth and blow on the cat’s nose to encourage it to swallow.

If the cat does not open its mouth when you tilt back the head, hold the pill as before and place your middle finger of the same hand over the small incisor teeth – not over the sharp fangs (canine teeth) – to open the lower jaw.

Pull open the lower jaw. Keep your middle finger in place to hold the lower jaw open (3), then either drop the pill or capsule as far back on the tongue as possible or use your index finger (1) and thumb (2) to push the pill over the back of the tongue.

If you use your thumb and index finger to push the pill over the base of the tongue, your fingers will be inside the cat’s mouth, and you must work rapidly to avoid getting bit.

Close the mouth and stroke the cat’s neck or blow sharply on its nose to encourage swallowing.

Pilling devices can be used to place a pill or capsule over the base of the tongue, so you do not have to place your fingers in the cat’s mouth. There are several ways to hold the pilling device.

You can hold the device between your thumb and middle finger and position your index finger to “push” the trigger. To prevent premature release of the pill, you can move your index finger to push the trigger just before dislodging the pill in the back of the throat.

You can also curl your fingers around the device with your thumb positioned to “push” the trigger. To prevent premature release of the pill, you may move the thumb to push the trigger just before dislodging the pill in the back of the throat.

You can also hold the device between your index and middle fingers with your thumb positioned to “push” the trigger.

After finding a comfortable grip, tilt the cat’s head back. It will often drop its lower jaw open. Insert the pill at the end of the pilling device over the base of the tongue.

If the cat doesn’t open its mouth, use the middle finger of the hand holding the pilling device to open the lower jaw. Insert the pill at the end of the pilling device over the base of the tongue. Push the plunger on the pilling device with your thumb or index finger to deposit the pill far back in the cat’s mouth.

Giving a cat liquid medications

Liquid medications are given in a pouch between the teeth and cheek. Quickly squirt the medication into the pouch, hold the cat’s mouth closed, and stroke its neck or sharply blow on its nose to encourage swallowing.

Liquids are more likely to accidentally enter the windpipe compared to pills or capsules. To avoid the cat inhaling liquid into the windpipe, do not tilt the cat’s head backward.

If you find it difficult to give your cat a pill or capsule, speak to your veterinarian about suspending the pill or capsule into a liquid. Some medications can be suspended in liquid while others lose their effectiveness. Always talk to your veterinarian before altering medication.


This information is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care. Always follow the instructions provided by your veterinarian.

Veterinary ECG

What is feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy? 

Feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the most common type of heart disease in cats, causes the heart muscle to thicken and decreases the heart’s efficiency. Some cats show no sign of illness, especially early in the disease, which can lead to congestive heart failure.

What causes feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy?

The cause of feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is unknown, although certain breeds of cats appear to be predisposed. Middle-aged male cats may be more commonly affected.

What are the signs of feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy?

Signs of feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy can vary from no symptoms to lethargy and rapid or labored breathing. Other signs can include sudden weakness, collapsing episodes, and sudden death due to disturbances in heart rhythm.

In some cases, signs of left-sided congestive heart failure, including fluid accumulation in the lung, may occur. These signs include lethargy, decreased activity level, rapid and/or labored breathing, and possibly open mouth breathing with excitement or exercise. Sometimes left and right-sided congestive heart failure develops with fluid accumulation inside the chest or abdominal cavity, causing greater respiratory effort and abdominal distention.

Once fluid accumulations have occurred, clinical heart failure is present, and aggressive medical therapy should be sought.

In some cats with a very large heart chamber, a blood clot may form and if it enters the circulation may cause weakness or paralysis (usually of the rear legs).

How is feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy diagnosed?

A physical examination by a veterinarian may reveal a heart murmur, abnormal heart and lung sounds, or irregularities in heart rhythm that can lead to a suspected diagnosis of the disease. Chest X-rays, electrocardiograms, and echocardiograms are often used to confirm a diagnosis and determine severity.

A routine physical exam and one or more of these tests may be recommended every six months to one year to look for any progression of disease in cats without clinical signs.

How is feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy treated?

Treatments for feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy vary depending on the severity of the disease in the patient.

Asymptomatic cats may not need medical therapy, but routine reevaluations will often be recommended. Other cats will need medications to slow the heart rate and promote relaxation of the pumping chambers (ventricles). If arrhythmias or congestive heart failure signs are present, additional medications may be required.

Since this disease can be progressive, medications and dosage may change with time. Therapy is always tailored to the needs of the individual patient.

What should I do if my cat has or is showing symptoms of feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy?

If your animal is showing symptoms of feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, contact your veterinarian or the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital at 509-335-0711. If your cat has already been diagnosed with the disease, our cardiology team can help to create the best treatment plan for your pet.


This information is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care. Always follow the instructions provided by your veterinarian. Washington State University assumes no liability for injury to you or your pet incurred by following these descriptions or procedures.

Image of the computer screen on a heart monitor.

What is dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs?

Just like humans, dogs can get a form of heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy, which causes weakened heart contractions and poor pumping ability. As the disease progresses, the heart chambers become enlarged, one or more valves may leak, and signs of congestive heart failure develop.

What causes dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs?

The cause of dilated cardiomyopathy is unclear in most cases, but certain breeds appear to have an inherited predisposition. Large dog breeds are most often affected, although it also occurs in some smaller breeds, such as cocker spaniels.

Occasionally, dilated cardiomyopathy-like heart muscle dysfunction develops secondary to an identifiable cause such as a toxin or an infection. In contrast to people, heart muscle dysfunction in dogs and cats is almost never the result of chronic coronary artery disease, or heart attacks.

What are the signs of dilated cardiomyopathy?

Early in the disease process, there may be no detectable clinical signs, or the pet may show reduced exercise tolerance. In some cases, a physical examination by a veterinarian can detect abnormal heart sounds and irregular heart rhythm as the disease progresses.

As the heart’s pumping ability worsens, blood pressure starts to increase in the veins behind one or both sides of the heart. Lung congestion and fluid accumulation, or edema, often develop behind the left ventricle/atrium. Fluid also may accumulate in the abdomen or around the lungs if the right side of the heart is also diseased. When these symptoms occur, heart failure is present. Weakness, fainting episodes, and sudden death can result from heart rhythm disturbances.

What are the signs of heart failure in dogs?

Dogs with heart failure caused by dilated cardiomyopathy often show signs of left-sided congestive failure, including reduced exercise ability, tiring quickly, increased breathing rate or effort for the level of their activity, excess panting, and cough (especially with activity).

Sometimes the cough seems soft as if the dog is clearing its throat. Poor heart pumping ability and arrhythmias can cause episodes of sudden weakness, fainting, or sudden death. Some dogs with dilated cardiomyopathy experience abdominal enlargement or heavy breathing because of fluid accumulation in the abdomen or chest.

More advanced signs of heart failure can include labored breathing, reluctance to lie down, inability to rest comfortably, worsened cough, reduced activity, loss of appetite, and collapse.

Signs of severe heart failure may seem to develop quickly with dilated cardiomyopathy, but the development of underlying heart muscle abnormalities and progression to overt heart failure probably takes months to years.

How is dilated cardiomyopathy diagnosed?

A cardiac exam by a veterinarian can detect abnormal heart sounds and many signs of heart failure. Usually, chest radiographs (X-rays), an electrocardiogram (ECG), and an echocardiogram are performed to confirm a suspected diagnosis and to assess severity.

Echocardiography can be used to screen for early dilated cardiomyopathy in breeds with a higher incidence of the disease. Resting and 24-hour (Holter) ECGs are sometimes used as screening tests for the frequent arrhythmias that usually accompany dilated cardiomyopathy in some breeds, especially boxers and Doberman pinchers.

What treatments are available for dogs with dilated cardiomyopathy?

Asymptomatic cases of dilated cardiomyopathy may be treated with medications to slow the progression of the changes leading to heart failure and as symptoms advance. Since the disease is irreversible and heart failure tends to be progressive, medications and dosages usually must be increased over time.

What should I do if my dog is showing signs of dilated cardiomyopathy? 

If your dog is showing any symptoms of dilated cardiomyopathy, you should immediately contact your veterinarian or WSU’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital at 509-335-0711.


This information is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care. Always follow the instructions provided by your veterinarian. Washington State University assumes no liability for injury to you or your pet incurred by following these descriptions or procedures.