How to enjoy a safe holiday with your pets

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With winter fast approaching, people are preparing for the holidays and snowy months ahead. As families plan their fun activities, social gatherings, travel and shopping sprees, it’s essential to remember the furriest family member during the hustle and bustle of the season.

To give or not to give? That is the question.

As you’re planning your holiday shopping list and checking it twice, reconsider giving a pet as a gift this year.

“I don’t recommend giving a pet as a gift to anyone who isn’t expecting it," said Dr. Meghan Herron, board-certified behavioral medicine faculty clinician at the Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center. "It’s a lifestyle commitment. It’s a living being that someone has to take care of. It’s a time, financial and emotional commitment.”

While a puppy or kitten may seem like a great gift for your child or partner, “the cuteness wears off," Herron said. "If someone isn’t prepared for it, it won’t be a successful adoption."

Most cats and dogs live anywhere from 10-20 years, depending on the breed, so people need to be willing participants when receiving a new animal.

Additionally, the early weeks are crucial when adopting a pet so, if the person receiving the gift is ready for a pet, don't wait until a specific date, such as a birthday or anniversary, as the pet's age is more important.

“It’s very influential in how they will behave the rest of their lives,” Herron said. “Don’t delay the gift for a date.”

Because the first weeks are so important, give a pet at age 8-10 weeks, so the receiver doesn't miss out on the socialization window.

You may also consider giving pet equipment and supplies, educational books or money toward a pet, if you aren't 100 percent sure someone is ready for a pet. It’s important that the receiver can answer these questions before taking on a pet:

  • What is my lifestyle like?
  • How much time can I commit to behavior and house training?
  • Is a dog or a cat a better option for me?
  • Is a senior dog or a puppy a better option for me?
  • What type of breed is best suited for my lifestyle?

If you already have pets, or you've been given one, follow these pet safety tips this winter to keep your four-legged friends happy, safe and healthy.

1. Watch what your pet eats during the holidays

The holidays are a time for constant family gatherings, delicious meals and sugary treats. Your dog might make base camp under the kitchen table, hoping for scraps while wagging its tail in an adorable fashion, but remember many foods can be deadly to pets, including these:

  • Grapes
  • Raisins
  • Chocolate, especially dark and baker’s chocolate
  • Artificial sweeteners like Xylitol

“The general rule is to keep to pet-specific types of food,” said Dr. Edward Cooper, board-certified Emergency and Critical Care faculty clinician with Ohio State’s Veterinary Medical Center. “Anything in excess is not a good idea."

Cooper also advises that you block access to garbage cans.

2. Keep doors closed at all times

With family members and friends coming and going this holiday season, you’ll likely have a lot of additional movement in and out of your home. As such, it’s important to be diligent in checking that doors are closed. Not only will this keep out cold, windy drafts, you’ll ensure your pet doesn’t escape through an open door.

As an added precaution, make sure your pet wears a collar and ID tag, in addition to having a microchip the local shelter can scan. If your pet sneaks out through an open door, a collar with identification greatly increases the chances of a safe return.

3. Make arrangements for your pet when traveling

During the holidays, you may be putting in extra hours at work, doing a lot of shopping, and traveling to see friends and family, which leaves your pet home alone for extended periods of time. Before you leave the house or town for blocks of time, arrange proper care for your pets.

“Don’t show up to a doggy daycare the day you are leaving and expect that your pet will be accepted," Cooper said. "Pets need to be up-to-date on vaccinations. Make sure preparations are made in advance and the facility is prepared to receive them.”

Cats are a little more independent, so you may be able to leave them at home, instead of boarding them. However, cats should be checked in on “ideally twice a day,” Cooper advised.

When you leave a pet home, give them plenty of food and water, toys that will entertain them, and access to a comfortable spot to help them relax.

“Pets get stressed when their people are gone,” Cooper said.

Ask trusted people who feel comfortable with animals and who know your pet to care for your furry family member, either in your home or at theirs. You may consider installing a pet camera to keep an eye on your dog or cat and note any misbehavior that will require additional training. This will also give you peace of mind and allow you to check in from your smartphone or tablet and make sure your pet is safe and happy.

4. Keep hazardous materials out of reach

If you buy any hazardous chemicals to remove snow or ice this winter, keep them out of reach of your pets. In particular, antifreeze and road salt pose major health threats to animals.

“Pets come across puddles (of antifreeze) and become inquisitive, lick it, and it tastes sweet so they keep licking it,” Cooper said.

Antifreeze can cause major kidney damage to animals so, if your pet ingests any, call your vet or animal poison control right away. Avoid problems by thoroughly cleaning any spills.

As for road salt and other de-icing materials, they can get stuck in paws and cause irritation. Cooper advised that pet owners clean animals' paws once they are back inside.

Holiday decorations are additional hazards for pets. For example, curious cats or dogs can pull down trees onto themselves, eat garlands that cause internal blockage, and chew strings of lights that could electrocute them. Some holiday plants are also dangerous, such as lilies, which are toxic to cats.

Cooper suggests “getting a sense for how interested your pet is with the decorations” and decorating accordingly.

5. Be wary of dropping temperatures

Extreme cold temperatures are concerning for pets. Cooper recommends limiting time outside when temperatures are freezing. While some breeds can tolerate the cold better than others, pets are still susceptible to hypothermia and frostbite.

Watch out for ice and pay attention to below-freezing temperatures while walking your dog or letting your cat outside. If your pet must stay outside, provide extra shelter like a blanket and an igloo, or prepare a safe space with a heat source in the garage or a shed.

Another potential concern for pets is falling into freezing water. If your pet falls into a frozen pond or lake, get them out of the water quickly, dry them off and get them to a warm environment. Don’t douse them in hot water and, even if you've dried them off, take them to a vet to ensure there are no lasting effects, Cooper said.

Enjoy the holidays

Pets are an important part of people's lives so, as you take steps to keep them safe, also include them in holiday celebrations. Make them part of gifting by giving a new toy, include them in family photos that go out to friends and family members and enjoy the holiday together.