Tails of Seattle: A pets blog

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October 26, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Veterinary Q&A: Halloween treats and pets

Posted by Neena Pellegrini

Thumbnail image for PetSmartHalloween.JPGSeamus, a miniature Bull Terrier, joins in the Halloween fun at PetSmart's annual Howl-O-Ween costume party earlier this month in New York. Photo by The Associated Press.

Dr. Sheppard Thorpe, an emergency veterinarian at Puget Sound Veterinary Referral Center in Tacoma, answers this week's questions.

thorp2.jpgQuestion: This is that scary time of year again, full of ghosts, witches, pumpkins -- and sugary bags of trick-or-treat candy. A fun time for kids and adults can be a disastrous time for pets who share those bags of treats, landing them at the vet's office or emergency clinic. What kind of health emergencies do see most often during the Halloween holiday?

Answer: Around the trick-or-treating time, we see many dogs that eat chocolate and other Halloween candy.

Pet ingestion of Halloween treats can cause vomiting, diarrhea, hyperactivity, pancreatitis, heart arrhythmias, seizures, liver disease, kidney disease, gastrointestinal obstruction and even death.

Dangerous or even fatal chocolate toxicity is rare because knowledgeable owners usually get their chocolate-eating pets into the clinic within a few hours of ingestion. Once the pet arrives, we do what is called "decontamination" -- vomiting is induced and then activated charcoal is administered.

We also see pets with general vomiting and diarrhea from gastrointestinal upset after they've eaten candy, wrappers and holiday decorations. This can be very serious if the pet develops pancreatitis or if the pet becomes very dehydrated.

A quick and timely response makes the treatment much easier on your pet and your wallet.

Question: We've read that raisins and grapes, yeast dough, Macadamia nuts -- even an artificial sweetener called xylitol -- are toxic to pets. True? What problems do they cause?

Answer: Yes, raisins, grapes, yeast dough, Macadamia nuts and xylitol are toxic to pets. Xylitol is present in many "healthy," low-calorie treats and in sugar-free gum. These foods and additives can cause kidney damage or failure; gastroenteritis characterized by pain, bloat and vomiting and diarrhea; neurological abnormalities; severe hypoglycemia; and liver damage.

The National Animal Poison control or Pet Poison Helpline are fantastic resources for pet owners.

If you need help or advice, never hesitate to call your local veterinarian or your local emergency clinic. Above all, with almost all poisonings, the key is getting your pet to the vet quickly.

Question: Why is chocolate dangerous? Is some chocolate -- dark or bittersweet chocolate -- worse than others, such as milk or white chocolate?

Answer: Chocolate contains an active ingredient called theobromine, which is toxic to pets. Theobromine is a stimulant that pets are more sensitive to than people and can cause hyperactivity, elevated heart rate, twitching and tremoring, vomiting and diarrhea and, worst of all, seizures.

Dark chocolate is more potent, having a higher concentration of theobromine, and, therefore, is more toxic. All chocolate (cakes or brownies, milk chocolate, white chocolate, chocolate syrup, cocoa powder) is considered "rich." Although not as serious as theobromine toxicity, foods with high sugar and fat contents can cause serious stomach and bowel problems. Decontamination and quick treatment is key.

Question: What harm can one little candy bar do?

Answer: It depends on the size of your pet, the presence of any underlying conditions and the amount of chocolate your pet has ingested.

A Hershey's Kiss is safe for a 70-pound Labrador retriever to eat but harmful to a 3-pound Chihuahua.

Another problem with "just one little treat" is that dogs can develop a liking to chocolate and soon may be climbing on the table to help themselves to that whole bowl of Halloween candy.

The power of the dog nose can also help them find that wrapped box of chocolates under the Christmas tree or hidden away for Valentine's Day. I know one Beagle who learned to open the pantry, and he loved to eat the brownie mix.

Question: What should I do if my pet accidentally eats chocolate? What symptoms should I watch for?

Answer: Call your regular veterinarian or local emergency/referral veterinary hospital for recommendations.

It helps to have the candy wrapper with the list of ingredients and percentage of cacao or cocoa in the product.

Monitor your pet for hyperactivity, elevated heart rate, vomiting/diarrhea, tremors, twitches and seizures although preventive treatment long before any of these symptoms is the best approach.

If you have access to the Internet, check out and look up chocolate toxicity. The website has an excellent chart comparing the number of ounces of chocolate a pet would need to ingest for toxicity.

Consider calling the National Animal Poison Control Center (1-800-548-2423; $65/call) or the Pet Poison Helpline (1-800-213-6680; $50/call) to speak directly with a veterinary poison specialist.

Question: What other kinds of Halloween treats are dangerous for my pet to eat and why?

Answer: All Halloween treats are dangerous for your pet because these products contain refined sugar designed for human consumption.

High salt content is especially dangerous for any pet with a heart condition. Small dogs and older pets are particularly susceptible.

Question: Which treats are safe?

Answer: You can purchase safe pet treats at your local veterinary clinic and pet store.

Moderation with any treats is key. Be critical and realize that expensive, pure chicken jerky with no added salt or other preservatives is healthy versus the appealing and inexpensive additive-laden junk food treats.

Be sure to use common sense as well. With the "good treats" giving our pet the WHOLE bag is never a good idea. Break the tasty morsels into smaller portions.

Look at the food you feed your pet normally. Most products have a toll-free number to contact the producer with any questions or concerns. Major name-brand foods have a veterinary nutritionist on staff to discuss veterinary diets with clients.

Ask your food manufacturer what treats they would recommend to complement their food without putting your pet at risk for obesity or other health troubles.

Question: Are vegetables and fruits good treats? Which ones should pets definitely avoid?

Answer: Vegetables and fruits, both raw and cooked, are, in general, safe for pets in moderation. Never feed your pet grapes, raisins, onions or avocados because these are toxic to pets. The animal-poison websites have excellent lists of both safe and NOT safe treats.

If you have fruit trees in your yard, be cautious. Dogs can develop a taste for cherries, plums, apples or pears and can overdue it -- even get intestinal blockages from too many plum pits.

Question: Some of the treats -- or human food used as pet treats -- may not be toxic but can cause serious digestive problems. Which ones should owners give in moderation, if at all?

Answer: All treats should be given in moderation and in consideration of your pet's health. Avoid high-calorie, high-fat treats, and consider the weight of your pet. Three carrots are better than that one heaping tablespoon of potatoes with butter and gravy.

The No. 1 health ailment of pets in the United States is obesity.

Measure the amount of food you feed your pet daily and consider using a small amount of that to make your own pet treats. Kibble and canned food can be made into batter with the addition of water and baked into pet cookies.

Question: Are there any general rules you advise owners to follow for feeding treats to pets, especially around Halloween?

Answer: Moderation is key, and realize just how small your dog really is.
A piece of apple is always better than a nice piece of chocolate or sugar cookie.
Knowing your pet's general health condition and particular sensitivities is also essential.

This is an excellent resource: "Home-Prepared Dog & Cat Diets, The Healthful Alternative," by Donald R. Strombeck, DVM, Ph.D. (Wiley-Blackwell, 366 pp).
Happy Halloween!

Dr. Sheppard Thorp

Thorp, an emergency veterinarian and co-owner of Puget Sound Veterinary Referral Center in Tacoma, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in 1992. His special interests include therapy for shock/cardiovascular collapse, respiratory distress and pain control.

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Read our past Q&As:
Veterinary Q&A: Health issues facing aging dogs
Veterinary Q&A: Why blood work is necessary
Veterinary Q&A: Are prong collars safe for your dog?
Veterinary Q&A: Birth control for pets
Veterinary Q&A: How to find a good vet
Veterinary Q&A: Neutering your dog Part 2
Veterinary Q&A: Neutering your dog Part 1
Veterinary Q&A: Hyperthyroidism in cats
Veterinary Q&A: Incontinence in dogs
Veterinary Q&A: Hanging tongue syndrome
Veterinary Q&A: Bad breath in dogs
Veterinary Q&A: How much is too much exercise for my dog? Part 2
Veterinary Q&A: How much exercise does my dog need? Part I
Veterinary Q&A: A killer called bloat
Veterinary Q&A: Initial care for new puppies
Veterinary Q&A: Knee problems in dogs
Veterinary Q&A: Flea-control treatment
Veterinary Q&A: Bearded dragon lizards
Veterinary Q&A: Vaccinations for indoor cats
Veterinary Q&A: Lumps and bumps
Veterinary Q&A: More on aging dogs and arthritis
Veterinary Q&A: Aging dogs and arthritis
Veterinary Q&A: Puppy and geriatric exams
Veterinary QA: What dogs can safely chew
Veterinary QA: Why does it cost so much to clean a dog's teeth?
Veterinary QA follow-up: More on cleaning a dog's teeth
Veterinary QA: When to spay or neuter

•   •   •

Do you have a question about pet health? Ask now! We'll pose some of your questions to a local vet in an upcoming post.

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