The festive season is a great time of year and is fun for the family, pets included. During this time we introduce lots of items into our homes that we don’t normally have. Some of these things can be potentially harmful to our pets. The following information is valuable and interesting although each toxicity case is different - it goes without saying; if in doubt call your vet for help and advice.


1. Lilies


If you love cats as much as we do, please choose your flowers carefully this Christmas. Lilies are really toxic to cats because they cause kidney failure. Loving cat owners should keep their house lily-free. Every part of the plant is harmful to a cat, including the pollen which may be ingested whilst grooming themselves. Other festive plants that are harmful to pets include poinsettias, ivy and mistletoe.





2. Tinsel and Christmas decorations


Tinsel is a dangerous festive decoration for pets. Ingesting even a small length of tinsel means they could suffer from an intestinal obstruction. Common signs that your pet has swallowed tinsel or any other long, stringy object are:

  • pawing at the mouth
  • vomiting and diarrhoea
  • lethargy and weakness
  • dehydration
  • abdominal pain

While tinsel is not poisonous, it is dangerous if swallowed as it can wrap around the tongue or anchor itself in the stomach, rendering it unable to pass through the intestines. As the intestines contract and move, stringy foreign bodies can slowly saw through the tissue resulting in severe damage. Your pet runs the risk of severe intestinal injury or rupture. Treatment for this inevitably involves abdominal surgery.

Edible ornaments and decorations: Homemade macaroni ornaments, candy canes and chocolate coins are lovely festive items, but unfortunately they are harmful to our pets. Sugar from candy canes can cause a dangerous blood glucose surge in our pets. Chocolate is toxic (see more information below) and the wrapping foil and plastic can be problematic as they work their way through the gut. String-containing macaroni ornaments pose similar dangers to tinsel.  It is best to place edible ornaments and decorations where your pet cannot reach.

Candles & Lights: Just a reminder that lighting candles on or around a Christmas tree is extremely hazardous. Christmas trees are highly flammable and a pet can easily jostle the tree or knock over a candle. If using decorative fairy lights, keep them away from the bottom of the tree where pets can chew the electrical cords to prevent electric shocks.



3. Grapes, sultanas, currants and raisins


Grapes can cause kidney failure in dogs and cats so always keep these out of paws-reach; this includes grapes present as dried ingredients like sultanas, currants and raisins, recipes containing them and grape juice.

The substance that causes the toxic reaction is unknown and even small amounts can prove to be fatal for dogs of any age, breed or gender. The most serious effect of this toxicity is severe kidney damage leading to sudden kidney failure, with lack of urine production being just one of many symptoms that will affect your pet.

The reason why some dogs are affected excessively while others are not is still being studied. 

Symptoms from grape, sultana, currant and raisin toxicity can include:

  • Vomiting and diarrhoea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy, weakness, unusual quietness
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dehydration
  • Change in urine habits: passing a small amount, or none at all.
  • Foul breath and mouth ulcers
  • Tremors, seizures and in extreme cases; coma
  • Increased water intake


If your dog has ingested grapes in any form, you need to contact your vet immediately. To give your pet the best chance of recovery, diagnosis and treatment needs to be sought before all the toxins from the fruit have been absorbed.



4. Mushrooms, garlic, onions and sweetcorn


Not all mushrooms are toxic however, some can be a gastrointestinal irritant. Others can be hallucinogenic for a pet and some can cause acute liver failure and death.

Fresh, dried or powdered garlic and onions can cause a stomach upset and anaemia (low red blood cell count). The anaemia is caused by the destruction of red blood cells which in turn results in the reduced ability of the blood to carry oxygen to the organs that need it. In severe cases, the anaemia may lead to internal organ damage or even death. This toxicity is from the Allium species of plant which includes garlic, onions, leeks, scallions, chives and shallots.

If you suspect your pet has ingested these, watch for the following signs and contact your vet straight away: 

  • rapid heart rate and breathing rate
  • weakness or lethargy
  • vomiting and diarrhoea
  • pale gums
  • red or dark coloured urine
  • jaundice (seen as yellowing of the gums , skin and white parts of the eyes)

Sweetcorn itself is not toxic – lots of dogs (and some cats!) love the odd little bit. However, the danger occurs with corn on the cob. When a corn cob is eaten by a dog, it is just the right size to cause a serious intestinal blockage. It is one of the most common foreign bodies we encounter. Please dispose of your corn cobs sensibly and ensure your dog is not given any.




5. Avacados, stone fruit and fruit seeds.


Avocado is a fruit, its leaves, skin and stone contain the toxin ‘persin’. This can be toxic to birds some other animals but is generally non-toxic to dogs and cats. Avocados are rich in fats which could lead to pancreatitis, an extremely painful abdominal condition. Ingestion of the stone or pit is also a concern as this could cause a gastrointestinal blockage.

With stone fruits (cherries, peaches, apricots, plums, nectarines etc.) the stones and seeds are more dangerous than the flesh. This is also true of apple and some other fruit pips. The stones, leaves and plants stems of these fruits contain cyanide, which carries an obvious toxicity risk. Cyanide poisoning in dogs causes symptoms including:

  • increased respiratory and heart rate
  • heart rhythm issues
  • dilated pupils

Apart from the obvious choking hazard, fruit stones and seeds can cause gastrointestinal obstruction. If you are concerned your dog may have eaten any of these, please contact your vet for advice.



6. Alcohol


Your pet is not going to go to the fridge and pour a glass of wine or crack open a beer, but they can get alcohol through many other sources such as: rotten fruit, fermented products like unbaked dough and alcohol-laced desserts. Alcohol in dyes, mouthwash and paint also pose a risk to your pet, as do aftershave and perfumes which are common gifts at Christmas-time.

Alcohol (also known as ethanol) can give your pet symptoms such as low blood sugar, low body temperature, vomiting and diarrhoea. Kidney and heart failure can occur in extreme cases. Nervous system depression occurs which can end in seizures or coma. Confusion, disorientation, unsteadiness and weakness are all symptoms of ethanol toxicity in dogs.

A dog’s liver and kidneys are not meant to process ethanol. Given enough alcohol, people can pass out and for dogs; the consequences can be more severe after a much smaller amount. Make sure there are no open alcohol bottles available and if you spill any, clean it up immediately to prevent your pet from licking it.



7. Christmas Mince Pies, Christmas cake and Christmas pudding


These common treats are eaten at all times of the day and can be found almost everywhere! They are dangerous for three main reasons:

Firstly - they are full of dried grapes (see currants, raisins and sultanas above). In dried fruit, the toxin is more concentrated meaning they contain far more toxin per gram than fresh grapes. As dried fruits are small, we add lots to our baking meaning the finished product contains an even larger toxic load should our pets steal a Christmas treat to feast on!

Secondly - they are full of fats. This can give them stomach troubles and is one of the main risk factors for developing pancreatitis; a very painful, serious and costly disease to treat (see below).

Thirdly – they may contain alcohol which can cause many symptoms (see above).



8. Cooked bones and fatty foods


During the festive season we cook more meat joints than usual, resulting in more bones lying about the kitchen, outdoor and indoor dining areas. Once cooked, bones become brittle and splinter easily. This can lead to fragments getting stuck causing obstructions, gut irritation, constipation, diarrhoea and intestinal perforation, which is a very serious condition. Splintered bones damage the gums, teeth and throat; also posing a major choking hazard. Turkeys and chickens are hollow boned birds; these bones will splinter when raw or cooked so must never be given to your dog or cat under any circumstances.


Make sure you dispose of the bones appropriately; the best thing is to take it straight outside into a sealed bin. The meat string also needs careful disposal as this can be harmful if swallowed (see above). Remember, our pets need and appropriate, balanced and quality diet to stay healthy. Too much of the wrong food can result in organ damage and other serious health conditions.



9. Nuts


Most of the nuts found in the supermarket isle have potential to adversely affect our pets. They are all high in fats which can result in vomiting, diarrhoea, weight gain and pancreatitis. Macadamia nuts can cause symptoms, including weakness, vomiting, walking unsteadily, shaking, high temperatures and depression. It is unknown exactly what toxin macadamia nuts contain that causes this reaction in dogs and symptoms can last for up to 48 hours. Almonds can be difficult for dogs to digest and may cause an upset tummy. Walnuts can cause bowel obstructions if swallowed whole or in their shell. Walnuts (especially mouldy ones) are a particular hazard as they carry a toxin that can cause seizures and other neurological symptoms. Brazil nuts contain a particularly high amount of saturated fats and they also contain lots of selenium which potentially could cause selenium toxicity if ingested in large amounts. Cashews, peanuts and pistachios are not generally considered toxic to dogs. However, they are high in fat which dogs have a difficult time digesting leading to issues as described above



10. Chocolate and Xylitol


Chocolate is another edible delight that is around in large quantities at this time of year! Did you know that it is toxic to your dog and can cause life-threatening heart and neurological effects? The main symptoms are caused by the compound theobromine however; it also contains caffeine which contributes to its toxicicity. The high fat content could also lead to pancreatitis (see above).

Symptoms usually occur 6–12 hours after eating the chocolate. At first you may see:

  • increased water intake
  • vomiting and diarrhoea
  • swelling of the abdomen
  • restlessness

Things can worsen and the following signs may be seen:

  • hyperactivity
  • increased urination,
  • unsteadiness, rigidity, tremors and seizures
  • changes in heart rate, rhythm and blood pressure
  • purple or blue tinged to gums that are normally pink
  • coma and death
  • increase in temperature

Treatment and intense, expensive monitoring are necessary to improve the chances of survival. So please keep chocolate out of paws-reach. Eat it all yourself!

Sugar free products containing the artificial sweetener Xylitol are also toxic to dogs. Xylitol is found in many “sugar free” foods and is regularly used as a sugar supplement. It causes a life-threatening rapid drop in blood sugar levels and can cause liver damage.


With all the toxins noted above, prevention is better than cure, and in some cases “cure” sadly may not be possible. If your pet does get into mischief and consumes any of these items, the first thing to do is contact your vet for advice.

The information above is not a substitute for a consultation with your vet and is only intended as a guide. The quicker treatment is sought, the easier and more successful the treatment is likely to be.

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