The holidays are here and so many of us are making our shopping list and checking it twice. Family and friends are gathering to enjoy homecooked meals and desserts. This is a very joyous time of year but can be very hectic as well. The last thing a pet owner wants is the added stress of taking their cat or dog to an emergency vet due to sickness or accidental poisoning.

During the month of December, especially toward the end of the month, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center is flooded with calls on holiday-related toxins from plants, decorations, and food. In previous articles this month we covered plant and decoration hazards but was also need to be aware of possible toxins in the foods we typically see over the holidays.


Macadamia Nuts

One of the most common gifts brought back from winter vacation is chocolate-covered macadamia nuts! Unfortunately, these are easy to “sniff” out under the Christmas tree, and result in both theobromine and macadamia nut toxicosis. Macadamia nuts come from the Macadamia integrifolia or Macadamia tetraphylla tree and are comprised of 80% oil and 4% sugar. While the exact process of how this nut is toxic is unknown, it is thought to affect neurotransmitters, motor neurons, neuromuscular junctions, and muscle fibers. When ingested by dogs the possible signs include weakness, ataxia, tremoring, vomiting, abdominal pain, hind limb weakness, joint pain and possibly hyperthermia and pancreatitis. Signs are often seen within 12 hours of ingestion and resolve within 24-48 hours without treatment.


During the holidays, more people are baking. In calorie-counting or diabetic households, baked goods may contain xylitol, a natural. sugar-free sweetener. Xylitol is also found in diabetic snacks, foods, mouthwashes, toothpaste, chewing gum, mints, candies, and chewable multivitamins. Sugarless products, particularly those with xylitol listed within the first 3 to 5 active ingredients, can result in severe toxicosis to dogs within 15-30 minutes of ingestion. Signs of xylitol toxicosis may include lethargy, weakness, vomiting, diarrhea, hypoglycemia, collapse, anorexia, tremors, and seizures (from hypoglycemia). It is important that blood glucose is checked immediately when a pet has ingested a toxic amount of xylitol.

Alcohol (ethanol)

While pets can certainly be poisoned by scavenging unattended holiday cocktails, there are also some unusual sources of alcohol to consider. Such as raw yeast bread dough, rum or brandy soaked fruit cakes, and fermenting garbage/fruits. When raw yeast bread dough is ingested, the yeast ferments sugars to carbon dioxide and alcohol, resulting in alcohol poisoning. The signs of alcohol intoxication in pets include severe hypoglycemia, hypothermia, respiratory depression, and hypotension. Additionally, the ingested dough expands in the warm, moist environment of the stomach, acting as an oven, which can result in gastric dilation and potentially bloat or gastric-dilatation volvulus.

Chocolate and Cocoa

Sources of this delicious toxin are commonly found in all sorts of holiday treats. The toxins of concern in chocolate are theobromine and caffeine which share a mechanism of action. The amount of theobromine in chocolate is dependent on the concentration of the chocolate. For example, milk contains 44-60 mg/oz of theobromine while unsweetened baking chocolate contains 390-450 mg/oz. Poisoning can be seen when theobromine dosages exceed 20 mg/oz and more severe signs occurring when dosages exceed 40-60 mg/oz. Dual poisonings may result following the ingestion of certain chocolate-covered foods such as espresso beans/caffeine, macadamia nuts or raisins. Signs of poisoning can include cardiotoxicity, neurotoxicity, tremors seizures, hypertension, tachycardia, agitation, seizures, etc.


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