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Ask Dr. Jenn: How can I keep my pets safe during Easter festivities?

After a year of hunkering down, many families are looking forward to spend the Easter holiday together again. Complete with chocolates, lilies, and baskets full of Easter grass, it's bound to be fun for the humans, but what about our pets?

Ask Dr. Jenn: How can I keep my pets safe during Easter festivities?

Q: Hi Dr. Jenn- I’m really looking forward to this Easter this year! I’m finally having some family over after a year of social distancing and I really want to go all out with my food and decorations. Is there anything I should be mindful of to protect my pet during the holiday?

A: Like many of us, Easter is one of my favorite holidays. The brightly colored flowers and pastel decorations bring hope that the long cold winter is over and spring is finally here. My children wake up to baskets filled with candy and we have an Easter feast with the whole family

But while we are celebrating Easter, it is important to realize that many of our Easter traditions pose real, and potentially deadly, hazards to our pets.

Easter Lilies: As their name implies, Easter lilies are a traditional symbol of Easter. They grace the front of most churches during lent season and decorate the table at many family Easter celebrations. Easter lilies are beautiful but are also extremely toxic to cats. Ingestion of any part of the lily, including leaves, stems, flowers, or pollen, can lead to irreversible kidney failure. Your cat may experience anywhere from mild but permanent kidney damage to complete kidney failure and death.

It’s not just Easter lilies that are toxic, other types of lilies including daylilies, Stargazer lilies, Tiger lilies, and Japanese showy lilies are also extremely toxic to cats.  Keep this in mind as you plan your garden. Unlike cats, dogs will only develop mild gastrointestinal signs (vomiting and/or diarrhea) from ingesting lilies.

Sago Palms: While not necessarily a symbol of Easter, Sago palms are becoming more popular and are being sold in many big box stores, such as Walmart and Costo. You may see this cute little palm tree and think it would be a nice symbol of Palm Sunday. But Sago palms are deadly to both cats and dogs.

Like lilies, ingestion of any part of the plant can be fatal, including the leaves, seeds, bark, and roots. The palm contains cycasin which leads to liver failure, bleeding problems, and neurologic signs. The damage to the liver happens quickly so early diagnosis and treatment is very important.

Chocolate: Chocolate Easter bunnies are a staple of most Easter baskets. Everyone loves chocolate, including dogs. Chocolate contains the compound theobromine, as well as caffeine, both of which are toxic to dogs at high enough doses. The general rule of thumb is: The darker the chocolate, the more theobromine and caffeine it contains.

Of course, if ingested, the degree of illness will depend on the size of the dog, the type of chocolate, and the amount of chocolate ingested. But, nonetheless, effects range from mild gastrointestinal upset to abnormal heart rhythms and, in severe cases, seizures and death can result. Cats are also susceptible to the toxic effects of chocolate, but most cats don’t have an affinity for chocolate and will not eat it on their own.

Easter Grass: Easter grass is another staple of many Easter baskets. The colorful plastic threads add some fun to the basket. Cats love to play with pieces of string and the little blades of grass. The plastic itself isn’t toxic, but if your cat eats the grass there is a potential for problems.

If ingested, the thread-like grass may wad up in the stomach or intestines, causing a knot-like obstruction. If this happens, matters have just gotten more complicated. A knot of grass may get trapped in the stomach while the rest of the string of grass tries to pass through and this can cause the intestines to bunch up like an accordion and can tear through the intestines causing a lot of damage. In cases like this, surgery is often needed to remove the grass and repair the intestines.

Easter Dinner: Ham is a traditional food at Easter, along with lots of delicious fatty foods that are very tempting to your pets. You may want your dog to be part of the celebration and give him the ham bone to chew. I strongly advise against giving bones to dogs. I know what you are thinking, dogs have been chewing on bones for centuries. Your dog may have been given bones every year and never had a problem before. As a veterinarian, I cannot count the number of sick dogs I have treated after eating a ham bone that have eaten them in the past without any problems.

Just because your dog safely ate a bone in the past does not mean he won’t have problems next time. The body cannot digest bone. If a large enough piece is swallowed, it can get lodged in the stomach or intestines causing a life-threatening blockage that requires surgery for removal. Smaller pieces can pass through the intestines and into the colon. But these sharp fragments of bone chew up the guts as they go through and can cause an impaction. I’ve seen many dogs with either severe bloody diarrhea or a colonic impaction from ingestion of bones, especially ham bones.

Even if you don’t intentionally give your dog a bones or table scraps, remember the smell of the garbage is very enticing. High fat foods can cause pancreatitis in dogs, which leads to vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Be careful of those hot crossed buns rising on the counter. Raw bread dough will ferment in the stomach and release gases causing bloating and intoxication in your dog.

If you keep your pets away from these potential hazards you are less likely to spend your Easter weekend at the veterinary emergency clinic. I hope that you have a safe and happy Easter!

Give your furry friend a pet from me,

Dr. Jenn

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