How to keep dogs and cats happy and safe during the festive season

From food to decorations, Dr Sara Elliott and Dr Katrin Jahn share their expert tips for pet owners

The winter holidays are almost here. While most people are decorating their Christmas trees and pulling out old family recipes, it’s also important for pet owners to be extra vigilant when it comes to keeping animals safe and healthy over the festive season.

Even though this Christmas and New Year may be a slightly muted affair, there are still things pet parents should keep in mind to ensure their furry friends can also enjoy the holidays.

The National spoke to two veterinarians in the UAE to hear what they have to say and share their expert tips.

Be careful when sharing leftovers

Dogs and cats are notorious for wanting to eat the leftover food on their owner's plate, but it’s important to remember that it is not always in their best interests, no matter how much they beg.

“While we may delight in enjoying luxury foods and treats, you should avoid giving your pets food from your plate even if they look at you with loving eyes. Sharing your food not only encourages bad habits, but the consequences could be fatal,” says Dr Sara Elliott, founder and director of British Veterinary Hospital in Dubai.

She warns especially about chocolate, because it contains a chemical called theobromine, which is highly toxic for both cats and dogs.

“Consumption of chocolate can lead to seizures, heart attacks and even the smallest trace of chocolate can cause vomiting and diarrhoea,” Elliott adds.

Another concerning food item is macadamia nuts, which are commonly found in festive cookies, but are a choking hazard for many pets.

“They also contain toxins that can cause serious harm to dogs. If consumed, these nuts can affect a dog's muscles, digestive tract and nervous systems, leading to breathlessness and weakness,” she says.

However, it’s not always the obvious items that can cause danger to pets. Grapes and raisins, both key ingredients in mince pies and Christmas pudding, also contain a toxic agent that is extremely harmful to the kidneys of both cats and dogs.

“Speak to your vet or animal nutritionist about the types of treats your pet can enjoy while you are having your Christmas dinner. It will make them less interested in the contents of your plate, and we all love to be treated every now and then – especially at this time of year,” says Elliott.

Watch out for decorating hazards

Christmas decorations can also become an issue around the holidays. Most cat owners already know the difficulty of having a Christmas tree, as felines often see the shiny ornaments, lights and branches as toys.

“With pets in the family, you need to select your decorations wisely,” says Elliott. “Avoid buying glass tree decorations. If your cat manages to smash them when you are not home, it may cut its paws on broken glass. Christmas tree lights, if chewed, are a fire hazard and can cause electrocution, so it is crucial they are turned off and unplugged at night and when the family is not at home.”

However, it isn’t just Christmas trees and ornaments that pet parents need to fear.

“Tinsel is one of the worst culprits as, if ingested by cats, this can cause what we call a linear foreign body condition and that almost always requires surgery,” says Dr Katrin Jahn, founder of German Veterinary Clinic in Abu Dhabi. “Many decorations have the potential to cause problems, mainly in the form of gastroenteritis or intestinal blockages if they are ingested.

"If you like to have other festive plants around the house, avoid choosing mistletoe, holly, lilies and poinsettias, as their pollen, petals, sap and leaves are toxic for cats and dogs, and can lead to digestive upsets and, in some cases, serious medical issues such as cardiac arrhythmia if ingested," adds Elliott.

Getting the right scent

While Jahn suggests hanging decorations higher up to stop pets knocking them off or chewing them, Elliott offers another suggestion.

“To ensure your cat doesn’t use your Christmas tree as a toy, place orange peels at the bottom of the tree. The smell of orange peel isn’t pleasant for cats and, if they pick up on the scent, they will most likely avoid the area,” she says.

Animals have sharper senses than humans, so getting the right scent is also important during the holidays, especially since people tend to want to fill their homes with fragrances that evoke nostalgia. However, for cats especially, very strong scents can be off-putting or aversive.

Elliott warns that certain essential oils and fragrances are poisonous and could cause fever and chemical burns for cats and dogs. It’s recommended to avoid oil-based products containing scents such as cinnamon, pine, wintergreen, lemon and tea tree.

“As an alternative, you could opt for scented candles, but be sure to place them out of reach of pets and remember to blow them out before you leave the house,” she says.

Create a pet grotto in your home

Another important thing to consider are New Year's Eve fireworks, which can cause high amounts of stress and anxiety for pets.

“If you can hear fireworks from your home, this may have a long-lasting effect on how your pet reacts to loud noises in the future, causing anxiety,” says Elliott. "Tiring your pets out before the celebrations will put them in a calmer state during the evening. Take your dog out for an extra long walk and add extra playtime for your cats.”

She also recommends setting up a safe space for pets to retreat to if they start to feel anxious. Dogs may show signs of shaking or trembling while cats will likely run to hide from the sounds, or display behaviour issues such as hissing or pinning their ears back.

However, pet owners can also do things such as keeping animals inside and ensuring all doors and windows are closed to muffle the sound of fireworks, as well as creating their own distraction, such as playing with their favourite ball or toys to distract their attention away from the loud noises.

"If you are at home, offer safety and security by reassuring and comforting your pet. You could also offer a long-lasting chew toy to distract your dog, as the licking and chewing behaviour is also calming and soothing," says Jahn.

Although if there are any issues, it's advised to be vigilant and to take action – no matter what day it is. "In case of an emergency, be sure to contact your vet as soon as possible to seek expert advice. Some incidents can be fatal if not handled quickly enough," says Elliott.

"Most importantly, don’t forget to wrap a pet-friendly present for your four-legged family members so they can join in on the festive fun."