Dog chewing shoe under Christmas tree

We associate some specific things with this time of year: holly and carols and candy canes. But do some pet health issues pop up more than others around the holidays? Curious, I asked my colleagues at Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI) to research claims that initiated on Christmas Day. Do the holiday warnings issued for pet parents truly address the risks associated with the season?

As the chief veterinary officer here at VPI, the results didn’t surprise me: The information from our more than half a million policyholders shows that on Christmas Day, veterinary visits are driven by a sense of urgency, if not flat-out emergency.

Surprised? I bet if you think about it, you won’t be. After all, you’re not going to take your pet in for a veterinary visit on a major holiday unless it’s a serious situation. And even if you truly do have nothing better to do with your time on Christmas Day, you won’t be able to schedule an ordinary veterinary appointment because your veterinarian’s office is likely closed.

You know what else I found from those top five Christmas Day claims? Chances are that for many of those pets, the problem was preventable, just as all those cautionary news reports suggest.

Holiday Emergencies

The list of the top VPI claims for Christmas Day is a good place to start a discussion on how to avoid an emergency veterinary visit. In order, here are our top five emergencies:

1. Gastritis/Enteritis: Gastritis/enteritis is veterinary-speak for severely upset stomach/intestines, with symptoms including vomiting and diarrhea. Sometimes this happens because a pet helps himself to holiday goodies, such as the Jack Russell Terrier who inspired our annual VPI Hambone Award by climbing into a refrigerator and eating the holiday ham while waiting to be rescued. Other times it’s because a pet is given something that’s outside her or his normal diet: too much, too rich, too little like what a pet should eat.

Prevention: Ask visitors not to give food to your pets without permission, and block pets from helping themselves by keeping food out of reach or even crating pets until after the holiday meal. (You don’t have to be the Grinch: A small amount of skinless turkey breast is fine, as is having pet-safe treats at hand for sharing in moderation.)

2. Lacerations or Bite Wounds: You think you don’t get along with your brother-in-law? Is your aunt a little hard to listen to after a spiked eggnog? There are families that fight like cats and dogs, after all, so is it any surprise that forcing pets to hang out together can also be a contentious experience?

Prevention: While it can be hard to say no to someone who asks to bring a pet to your home for Christmas, you should think about doing so if it will upset your own dog or cat. Separation is another option: Closed doors or crates can keep territorial pet disputes from ending up in the ER.

3. Soft Tissue Trauma: This is a pretty broad category, and within it can be found all degrees of pet calamity. It can be a dog hit by a car after a guest leaves the front door open, or a cat fallen on while purring underfoot, or even a dog with “weekend warrior” syndrome after bored grandkids engage him in an exhausting all-day game of fetch.

Prevention: Keep an eye on your pets and your guests to prevent unsafe interactions. Again, closed doors and crates can be a good thing. (Remember it goes both ways: If your cat trips your grandmother, you’re just as likely to be running to the human ER as the pet one.)

4. Foreign Body Ingestion: You name it, and there’s a pet who will eat it. That’s true of holiday gifts, decor and even things you might usually put out of reach but a guest might leave where a pet can get it — like underwear. And while eating things that shouldn’t be consumed seems like a dog thing, consider that light strings and tinsel can trigger a playful pounce by a cat who might then swallow what’s caught.

Prevention: Preventive measures will depend on you, your pet and your holiday plans. Tinsel is probably not the best choice for a Christmas tree in a home with cats, for example, and keeping things picked up in general will keep dogs from swallowing items that will need to be surgically removed. Remind guests that underwear and socks are especially appealing to dogs and that keeping dirty clothes in hampers or closed suitcases is a good idea.

5. Chocolate Poisoning: Chocolate is definitely on the list of foods that should never be given to a pet, but sometimes people overreact when they realize a dog has eaten some (cats usually won’t touch the stuff). Remember that chocolate toxicity increases the darker the chocolate gets and the smaller the dog involved. In other words, a small dog who consumes a bag of dark chocolate candy really does need a trip to the emergency veterinarian, but a large dog who eats a couple of milk chocolate candies is probably going to be just fine. (Here’s a handy chart, and remember it never hurts to call the ER vet and ask.)

Prevention: Keep all candy — not just chocolate but also sugar-free candies and gum sweetened with Xylitol — out of reach of pets, and remind guests to do the same.

Is Christmas Day Really Any Different?

If you guessed that the maladies topping our claims data when the entire year is taken into account are different, then you’re right. Only gastritis/enteritis is in our top 10 most years, when non-emergency health conditions such as ear and urinary-tract infections and skin allergies crowd the list.

While some of those veterinary visits can also be reduced with preventive acts and proactive wellness care, it’s not as clear-cut as with the claims that originate on Christmas Day. And while I’m happy pet health insurance is there to help when you need it, even on Christmas Day, I know I join my veterinary colleagues in hoping none of you finds yourself at the emergency clinic on that day — or any other.

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