Keeping Your Dogs Safe over the Holidays

by Jennifer Chan


I’ll never forget the time I was walking my dog the day after Thanksgiving and she got into a neighbor’s garbage bag that was full of turkey bones. First she started chomping and then she started choking. Luckily, the mail carrier was passing by and knew exactly what to do: the Heimlich maneuver. The partially chewed and splintered bones popped right out. We avoided an emergency trip to the veterinary hospital on a holiday weekend.

According to Dr. Howard Schutzman, owner of Antioch Veterinary Hospital, we were fortunate. “The main problem with bones, especially turkey bones and chicken bones, is they splinter easily,” he explains. “As they go down, they can lacerate the mouth and esophagus. Once they hit the stomach, it’s even worse—if they go into the small intestine, they cause a blockage. At that point, you’re looking at surgery.”

Many people make the mistake of feeding their dogs food from the table (bones, turkey fat) or leaving big boxes of chocolates unattended. These things can be harmful and even life-threatening. Dr. Schutzman emphasizes that there’s no antidote for chocolate. “The problem with chocolate is it contains theobromine and caffeine, which are stimulants that affect dogs’ cardiovascular nervous systems to a life-threatening degree,” he says. “It’s not just the type of chocolate, which is a very big thing, but how much they eat. In general, the darker and less sweet the chocolate, the more dangerous it is, because it contains more theobromine and caffeine substances.”

Dr. Schutzman says a 50-pound dog could eat 15 to 20 ounces of milk chocolate before it has a problem. But if that same dog eats one to two ounces of dark chocolate, it could be in trouble. “When it’s mild toxicity, they’re going to have vomiting and diarrhea, usually within 12 hours, and they’ll act agitated. They may start drinking and urinating a lot. As it progresses, you’ll start seeing the effects in the heart and nervous system, and that means cardiac arrhythmias, increased heart rate, and eventually tremors, seizures, and even death.” Some dogs eat the wrappers, too, which can cause bowel obstructions.

Grapes and grape juice, trail mix, currants, raisins, and fruitcakes are toxic for dogs, as is any product containing xylitol, a low-calorie sweetener that’s found in toothpaste, candy, pudding and chewing gum. “Xylitol is about 100 times as toxic as chocolate—one piece of sugar-free gum can kill a 10-pound dog,” says Dr. Schutzman. “When a dog ingests xylitol, there’s a severe, catastrophic drop in blood sugar within 15 minutes to two hours. They’ll vomit and then stagger like they’re drunk. Larger doses can cause liver failure and eventually death.” Other things to keep away from your dog are homemade play dough (due to high salt content), unbaked yeasty dough and marijuana.

Dr. Schutzman says the best thing to do during holiday parties is isolate your pets. “Don’t let them be exposed to things. Find a quiet room that has a nice place to lie down, bring in some food and water, and just close the door. Some dogs may not want to be away, and they’ll start going at the door and barking a lot. If that’s the case with your dog, you might want to talk to your veterinarian about getting some anti-anxiety medications for the day so you don’t have any disasters.”

If you do have a disaster, contact your veterinarian right away. Don’t wait. Another good resource is the 24/7 Pet Poison Helpline: (855) 764-7661 or They charge $49 for an initial consultation and follow-up calls related to the case.