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Common Pet Emergencies During the Holiday Season

The holiday season is upon us, and we all want our pets to be safe. Veterinary emergency hospitals can be very busy this time of year. It’s important for pet parents to know what is considered an emergency and how to prevent one from happening.

Gastrointestinal (GI) Associated Emergencies

Symptoms with GI emergencies include vomiting, heaving, diarrhea, abdominal distention, decreased appetite, abdominal pain, lethargy, loss of balance, seizures, and collapse. If a pet seems restless or repeatedly has an urgency to go outside, it can mean they are experiencing abdominal discomfort or pain. Any of these symptoms should prompt a call to your primary veterinarian.


 Food toxicities that are common during the holidays include chocolate, onions, garlic or leeks in fresh or dried forms, grapes, raisins, raw meat, macadamia nuts, and xylitol which is an artificial sweetener used in cooking and is in some sugar free gum and candies. These items should be avoided with pets, whether alone or in recipes.

Non-food toxicities during the holiday season include battery ingestion from toys, cameras, remote controls, and greeting cards. Additionally, potpourri, medications dropped from visitors, and zinc from toys, game pieces, and other metallic objects are toxic. Christmas tree water and seasonal plants such as amaryllis, lilies, mistletoe, and poinsettias can cause illness. The holiday season is cold in areas, and antifreeze and some ice-melt is poisonous to pets. Toxicity can result from a pet licking their paws after walking or running on ice melt, and wiping paws regularly is good prevention.

Gastrointestinal Injury and Obstruction

 Obstruction or blockage of the stomach, intestines, or esophagus can occur with dietary indiscretion. Symptoms of a GI blockage in a pet include repeated vomiting or heaving, decreased bowel movements, lethargy, and abdominal discomfort. Pets may even vomit water. If a pet goes for too long with a GI obstruction, the outcome can be fatal.

GI obstructions can occur with ingestion of ornaments, toys, game pieces, bones, electronics, and chew treats like rawhide. Both high strength glue and raw bread dough may expand in the stomach and intestines causing a major problem. Cats tend to ingest linear objects like tinsel, string, or dental floss which can cause severe damage, especially when they get stuck around the base of the tongue.

Injuries can occur with bones and harder structures that may break teeth or puncture the mouth, esophagus, or intestines. Chewed ornaments can lacerate the GI tract, and chewed on holiday lights and wires can cause serious burns.


Another common holiday emergency is pancreatitis. This is a painful condition where the pancreas becomes inflamed. Pancreatitis may come on acutely and can be life threatening. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, not eating, drooling, excessive panting, acting restless, fever, and weakness. These symptoms can go along with a painful abdomen. Pancreatitis is a common illness at veterinary hospitals, as pets tend to be given special holiday treats or catch food accidentally dropped on the floor.

Pancreatitis tends to occur when a pet ingests a high fat or new food or treat such as turkey skin, drippings from cooked meat, ham, butter, and fatty sugary treats like chips, cake, cookies, and ice cream. Pancreatitis can be mild, but can also be life threatening.

Non-Gastrointestinal Emergencies

While GI related illnesses are more common in the ER during the holiday season, less common emergencies can be equally serious and life threatening.

Pets are susceptible to being burned with lit candles. Burning candles that are kept higher up can be a major risk for cats that jump and climb. Christmas trees that are not tethered to a wall can cause serious injuries with climbing cats or jumping dogs. As mentioned, pets that chew on holiday lights or free wires can get burns or life threatening injuries from electrocution.

Guests come and go, and pets can quickly run outside when a door is opened. When a pet sneaks out of an open door, they can be hit by a car or injured by another animal outside. If an owner does not know the pet ran outside, extended cold exposure can be life threatening, so it’s helpful to continually make sure the pet is in the house. These are obvious emergencies and require prompt action.

Guests often bring their own pets along to visit for the holidays. Bite wounds are a common reason for a trip to the veterinary emergency room. Slowly introduce and always supervise visiting pets with your own pets to try to avoid pet arguments that can lead to injuries.


Pets are part of the family. Prevention and vigilance are best to keep them safe while they have fun during the holidays. Veterinary staff should always be consulted to determine if a trip to the veterinary ER is needed. While prevention is best, prognosis improves when an emergency is promptly addressed with proper treatment.