Ask the Vet: Halloween Hazards for Your Pet

Q: I’m not sure who’s more excited about Halloween… my kids, or my lab. They love getting candy, and he seems to love the chance to steal it. I’m careful about what I feed both the kids and the dog, but with the holidays, I tend to lighten up. What should I be sure to watch out for when it comes to snacks and treats our lab gets this holiday?

Jana, Knoxville

A: Thanks for the question, Jana. Halloween is almost here, which means one thing: candy, and lots of it! Be careful before dumping buckets full of loot on the living room floor though! While too much candy is a sure ticket to a bellyache for kids, our four-legged friends are at risk of something much worse. Here are a few of the most common candy and snacks to make sure you keep away from your pet.

Chocolate

Chocolate contains chemicals known as methylxanthine derivatives, the most toxic of which (to dogs and cats) are theobromine and caffeine. These chemicals act as stimulants and local irritants to the body, which can result in gastrointestinal problems (vomiting, loss of appetite, diarrhea), behavioral problems (anxiousness, restlessness, increased activity level) and in severe cases cardiovascular and neurological problems (arrhythmia, muscle tremors/trembling, seizures). Obviously, the more severe signs are serious and life threatening (seizures and arrhythmia), and require immediate medical attention.

Different chocolate contains different levels of these chemicals, with unsweetened bakers chocolate the worst offender. At the other end of the spectrum is milk chocolate. Most chocolate-filled baking mixes contain low amounts of these ingredients or mostly milk chocolate, but this is not always the case.

As with all toxins, the most important factors to determine effects on your four-legged friend are 1) the size of your dog, 2) the type of chocolate ingested, 3) the amount of chocolate ingested. Depending on these factors, your pet may be completely normal, or require immediate medical attention. If you're unsure, call your vet!

Sugar-Free Gum

Sugar-free gum contains an artificial sweetener called xylitol, which is severely toxic to your dog. Just a single piece can kill a 5-10lbs dog. A few different things can happen if your pet ingests this chemical.

  1. The chemical tricks your dog’s body into thinking the blood sugar levels are extraordinarily high, prompting a huge spike in insulin release. In reality, your pup or kitty can't use this artificial sweetener for energy like regular sugar (glucose). That means that the huge amounts of insulin make useable levels of sugar in the body plummet, and can result in lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, behavioral changes (dullness, depression) or seizures.
     
  2. Xylitol is also extremely toxic to the liver. The toxin can have delayed effects, meaning the timeline to your dog showing symptoms can be anywhere from immediately to more than 72 hours after ingestion, making it difficult to know the cause if you don’t witness your dog eat it. The liver has a large reserve, and can take, and even recover from, significant damage, but if too much damage occurs irreversible changes and lifelong liver disease can result. Furthermore, the damage can occur so quickly once it starts (called fulminant liver failure in medical terms) that the prognosis for a good outcome is slim. Even with survival, the liver can become scarred and small, leading to a host of future problems.

Treating Toxins

In the life-threatening case that your pet does ingest either of these common Halloween treats, there are some steps you can take. With both the toxic candies mentioned above, "decontamination" (I.e. inducing vomiting) is usually the first step in treatment. This should only be done by a veterinarian, and only if your pet is strong enough to handle it (so not while seizing for example).

Depending on your pet and how fast they digest things, you may not be able to purge a lot of the toxic substance. Typically, after 4 or so hours post-ingestion, everything has moved into the small intestine and is being absorbed.

There are some other ways to help after ingestion in addition to decontamination, or if decontamination is not an option. Activated charcoal can bind the toxic materials in chocolate and prevent them from being absorbed, allowing your pet to safely defecate them out (this will turn your pet’s stool solid black). Also, the volume administered can help push the toxic material through, decreasing how much gets into your pet’s system. More severely affected pets will likely need hospitalization and monitoring/treatment for arrhythmia, seizures and liver damage depending on their symptoms. Blood work will likely be recommended for these patients as well, and all told the costs can mount quickly, with no guarantees on the outcome. So keep those candies away from your pets!

It's Not Always The Candy

WRAPPERS / STICKS
The candies themselves are not always the problem. Lollipop sticks, and bunches of wrappers or string from treats can easily obstruct your friend’s stomach or intestines. Vomiting, lethargy, loss of appetite, and sometimes diarrhea may be all you see, but won't resolve with time. An obstruction is a serious emergency, and likely requires surgery to remove the offending material.

DECORATIONS / ORNAMENTS
Similar to above, string for hanging decorations, colored streamers and the like can turn from a fun toy into an obstruction quickly if you're not careful. It seems there’s no method to the madness of what some dogs will eat, and you would be surprised at the number of pets that are harmed from eating holiday decorations each year. Keep these objects away from your pet, and make sure they are securely fastened!

Have fun this Halloween. It’s one of my favorite holidays, for sure. Just be sure to keep a cautious eye on your pet, especially when it comes to scarfing down the candy and treats.

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