Cat-astrophe: Pet insurance claims spike during holiday season
A dog may be man’s best friend, but chocolate certainly isn’t a dog’s best friend. Chocolate can be toxic — even deadly — if eaten by a dog or a cat. Why? Chocolate contains theobromine, a cousin of caffeine that can damage a dog’s or cat’s heart, kidneys and central nervous system.
Around the holidays, Americans load up on candy, cookies and other treats filled with chocolate. That’s why the holiday season is a particularly dangerous time for pets — and a particularly busy time for pet insurers and veterinarians.
Veterinary Pet Insurance says that in December 2010, it received 223 pet insurance claims related to chocolate or caffeine poisoning, up 333 percent from the same type of claim in other months.
|Experts recommend against feeding holiday food to dogs and cats.|
Dr. Jules Benson, vice president of veterinary services at Petplan Pet Insurance, says his company witnesses a jump of about 150 percent in poisoning claims around the holidays. Benson says the total cost to treat pet poisoning — the amount of the claim, out-of-pocket expenses or both — can range from a couple of hundred dollars to several thousand dollars.
Being dogged about dangers
So, what can you do to prevent your pet getting sick around the holidays and to prevent a pet insurance claim or a bundle of veterinary bills? Here’s some advice from the pet professionals.
Aside from chocolate, keep your pets away from:
• Christmas tree water, which can breed bacteria and make your dog or cat sick if your pet drinks it. Change the tree’s water daily to prevent bacteria growth, experts say. And wrap aluminum around the top of the tree stand and the bottom of the tree to seal off access so your dog or cat can’t take a sip.
• Cold and flu medications.
• Antifreeze. Benson says antifreeze “tastes very sweet but can be extremely dangerous. Ingesting just a small amount can cause kidney failure and death in cats and dogs.”
• Alcoholic beverages.
• Macadamia nuts.
• Raw yeast dough.
• Gum, candy and other products made with xylitol, an artificial sweetener.
• Wrapped presents. Many gifts containing chocolate, nuts and other pet poisons wind up under the tree. Dogs, which have a tremendous sense of smell, can open these packages and feast on the poisonous goodies inside.
Here are some other potential pet problems to be on the lookout for.
If your dog or cat chows down on turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy or other human food, it can trigger a painful case of pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas. In 2010 at Petplan Pet Insurance, claims related to pancreatitis shot up 78 percent over Thanksgiving weekend and 61 percent around Christmas compared with other periods.
Dr. Jennifer Hennessey, a veterinarian in Sugar Land, Texas, says she treats more cases of pancreatitis around Thanksgiving and Christmas than any other time of the year. About one-third of the cases Hennessey sees require hospitalization for two to four days.
Hennessey says the average hospital bill to treat pancreatitis totals about $2,000. Petplan’s Benson says the average claim that the company gets for pancreatitis is $940, with some claims topping $6,000.
In addition to people feeding “holiday food” to pets, Hennessey says a common cause of pancreatitis is inappropriate storage of leftovers and trash. “I treated a dog for pancreatitis after it ate a rotten turkey carcass from the trash. The dog was transferred to a surgeon, and it ended up dying from the disease,” she says.
Instead of giving your pet a plate of people food as a holiday treat, provide a special pet bone or dental care treat, Hennessey suggests. Also, educate your visitors about the risks of sharing table food with pets. “Some guests may not have any animal knowledge or experience,” Hennessey says, “and may feed harmful scraps to a dog.”
Feeding human food — or too much pet food — to your dog or cat over the holidays can lead to this condition. Petplan says claims for treatment of gastroenteritis, which involves inflammation of the stomach and small intestine, surge by more than 50 percent over the holidays. Benson says the average cost to treat gastroenteritis, also known as stomach flu, is $400.
“Because we tend not to vary our pets’ diet from day to day, anything not normally fed can cause an upset stomach,” says Dr. Karen Johnson, a veterinarian who is a vice president and client advocate for Banfield Pet Hospital in Portland, Ore. “Feeding more food than normal can also lead to gastroenteritis.”
In addition to sticking to your pet’s food routine, make sure to store holiday leftovers, trash and anything that might tempt your pet as far out of paw’s reach as possible.
“Instead of giving extra food or treats, give your pet one-on-one attention as a special holiday treat,” Johnson recommends.
Around the holidays, dogs and cats are drawn to ribbons on packages, shiny ornaments and flickering candles. “Cats and dogs are curious about new things in their environment,” Banfield’s Johnson says.
That curiosity can kill the cat or dog. Pets “that ingest ribbon or tinsel are at risk of severe intestinal injuries that can require surgical intervention, can cut themselves on broken ornaments or burn themselves and even start a fire when checking out a burning candle,” Johnson says.
What’s the solution? Keep holiday décor out of paw’s reach, Petplan’s Benson says. That means trimming the lower branches of your Christmas tree, or anchoring the tree to a wall or the ceiling so your pet can’t topple it.