Why some pets visit the vet at Christmas time
Every year, I am asked to talk on television and radio about the hazards of Christmas for pets. I'm not sure why this is: it's as if people are looking for something topical about pets to talk about, and the idea of specific seasonal dangers sounds interesting. So every year, I write lists of the dangers of Christmas, and how to avoid them. But are they real dangers? Or are they imaginary? Just how serious are the risks to pets at Christmas time?
Perhaps the best way to answer this is to think about the emergency call outs that I see over Christmas time. All vets are obliged to provide an after-hours service for our patients, 24 hours, 365 days a year. For most vets, that means being on a rota, and sharing the duties amongst the vets in the practice. For most of my working life as a vet, I have worked on Christmas Day every three years. More recently, the work load has become easier for me, because my clinic has joined with other clinics in the area to set up a dedicated emergency clinic. Thankfully, this means that I no longer need to be on call at all: I don't have to work nights, weekends or public holidays.
The emergency clinic employs a team of specially trained emergency vets and nurses: they run their service from a location which is less than half an hour's drive from over twenty vet practices. We all refer our emergency cases straight to this central emergency clinic, and because there are over twenty clinics doing this, there's enough work to keep a team of vets and nurses busy all day and all night. There's no need for anyone to be on call, at home waiting for the phone to ring. Instead, the team is actively working: busy, seeing sick animals, all day and all night, whether it's Christmas Day, St Stephen's Day, or whenever. Then after the holiday period, when my own clinic reopens after the public holidays, I am sent email reports about any of my cases that had to go in to the emergency clinic while we were closed.
So it's easy for me, right now, to look back to last year's emails to find out exactly what emergencies faced the animals that had to visit the emergency clinic over the festive holiday period.
First up: a terrier, Gandalf, was taken for a walk early on Christmas morning, and he cut his foot badly. He had to be rushed in to the vet to have this stitched and dressed. His owner, by the way, had done the right thing: it's great to keep pets' general routine the same over the Christmas period. It helps them settle down later on, and it's only fair to them: they don't know it's any different to any other day, so why should they not get their usual walk. On this instance, Gandalf's owner was unlucky: he just happened to stand on a sharp object.
Second, a Labrador called Susie had a classic Christmas Day crisis: she stole a box of chocolates and scoffed enough to cause her serious health issues. She was taken immediately to the emergency team where she was given an injection to cause her to vomit: this successfully removed all the chocolate from her stomach before it could be absorbed into her bloodstream, and she went on to have a peaceful, uneventful Christmas break. That must have been the most expensive box of chocolates that her owner had ever not eaten. This year, all chocolates are going to be kept well out of Susie's reach: dogs are clever at sniffing out chocolate even if it is wrapped in pretty paper in a parcel surrounded by other presents. The safest way is to remove all chocolate box type of presents and store them out of dogs' reach.
Third, a Collie called Connie had another classic seasonal problem later on, at around 8pm on Christmas night. She developed severe gastroenteritis, with repeated episodes of vomiting and diarrhoea, after eating a plateful of rich Christmas food. Her owner thought she was being kind, giving Connie some turkey, gravy, potatoes, cranberry sauce, sprouts and carrots. Connie certainly enjoyed it, wolfing it down and looking for more. But her digestive system was not at all happy with this influx of unfamiliar foodstuffs, which is why the reaction was so dramatic. Connie had to have some injections, tablets and rehydrating fluids from the emergency vet, but she went on to make a full recovery. And this year, she'll be getting no more than 10% of her Christmas meal as "human dinner" - this is the safe rule of thumb for dogs and cats. They just don't do well when given large quantities of food that they're not accustomed to.
So that was last year's three emergencies from our clinic. We didn't see any of the other Christmas hazards that I mention in the media.No puppies electrocuted by chewing Christmas tree lights. No dogs being poisoned by eating grapes or swallowing Christmas tree ornaments. No cats suffering from the toxic effects of licking lily pollen off their coats. And it so happened that we didn't see any of the normal, non-seasonal problems that can arise: animals can fall ill at any time. The body doesn't know that it's Christmas.
The chances are that we'll see a similar selection of ailments this year. To make your own Christmas smoother, make sure that you don't let any of the common, preventable Christmas crises happen in your house. Have a lovely Christmas, everyone!