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Trick or Treat — or Trip to the ER?

Scarier than Halloween Kills.

by Dr. Shea Cox, DVM, CVPP, CHPV
Updated October 18, 2022
Overhead shot of a dog and a broken chocolate bar on the floor
Sonja / Adobe Stock

Your pet wants you to read our newsletter. (Then give them a treat.)

For most pet parents, Halloween conjures up memories of pup costumes from the past...and questions around how you and your dog pack can effectively dress up like the cast of Ted Lasso. Unfortunately, along with those adorable moments come some frightful ones: a trip to the emergency vet on Halloween. In an effort to take some of the scare out of your holiday, keep an eye out for these typical trick-or-treat night dangers for dogs.

Halloween Pet Safety Watch Outs

An open front door on Halloween translates into many opportunities for your dog to escape into the dark of night when their familiar territory has become particularly spooky. But there are other dangers to watch for on All Hallow’s Eve.

1. Chocolate

Guard the candy bowl! Given the opportunity, most dogs will gladly gorge on chocolate and other candy — wrappers included. Chocolate, especially dark or baking chocolate, can be very dangerous to pups. The compounds in chocolate that cause toxicity are caffeine and theobromine. The rule of thumb with chocolate is: The darker it is, the more dangerous it is. Depending on the type and amount of chocolate ingested, the symptoms can range from vomiting, increased thirst, belly discomfort, and restlessness to severe agitation, muscle tremors, irregular heart rhythm, high body temperature, seizures, and death.

Call your veterinarian or local animal emergency if your pet has ingested any chocolate. The vet can make a calculation, based on your pet’s body weight, to determine if what’s been ingested nears a toxic dose that requires treatment.

Xylitol

Candies containing the artificial sweetener xylitol can also cause problems, and even small amounts of it can be highly toxic to your dog. Xylitol is a non-caloric sweetener that is widely used in sugar-free gum, as well as in sugar-free baked products. In people, xylitol does not affect blood sugar levels, but in dogs, ingestion can lead to a rapid and severe drop in blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia).

The hypoglycemic dose for dogs is considered to be approximately 0.1 grams per kilogram of body weight. A typical stick of gum contains 0.3 to 0.4 grams of xylitol — which means that a 10-pound dog could be poisoned by as little as a stick and a half of gum! Dogs may develop disorientation and seizures within 30 minutes of ingesting xylitol-containing products, or signs may be delayed for several hours.

Some dogs who ingest large amounts of xylitol develop liver failure, which can be fatal. The dose to cause liver failure is 1 gram per kilogram of body weight, which is about 10 times more than the dose for low blood sugar. The same 10-pound dog could go into liver failure if they ingested an unopened package of gum, and sadly, this is not an uncommon occurrence. Any dog who has ingested a xylitol-containing product should be examined by a veterinarian immediately.

Decorative Pumpkins and Corn

Decorative pumpkins are considered to be relatively nontoxic — until they become moldy and can wreak havoc on your pet’s digestive system. Decorative corn is of a higher concern; the cobs can pose a risk for obstruction in the intestines if ingested. Luckily, corn cob pieces can be seen on radiographs, making the diagnosis of an accidental ingestion relatively easy.

Costumes

Even though our dogs look smashing in a pumpkin or pirate costume, many pets can have adverse reactions to a constrictive outfit or its irritating materials. If your pup loves to partake in the festivities, make sure the costume isn’t annoying or unsafe by scheduling a dress rehearsal well before the big night.

Take a close look at your pet’s costume and make sure it does not have small, dangling, or easily chewed-off pieces that they could choke on. Also, ill-fitting outfits can get twisted on external objects, or your pet, leading to injury. It should not constrict your dog’s movement or hearing, or impede their ability to breathe or bark. 

Does your dog have sensitive skin? Even those with hearty coats can have allergic reactions to the synthetic materials found in many costumes. If your pup seems distressed, allergic, or shows any abnormal behavior, consider letting them go in their birthday suit or donning a festive bandana.

Door Dangers

During trick-or-treating hours, it is best to keep pets in a room away from all the excitement at the front door during peak hours. Too many strangers can be scary and stressful. When opening the door for trick-or-treaters, take care that your pup doesn’t dart outside.

Always make sure your dog has proper identification. If they escape and become lost, a collar and tags or dog license — better yet, a microchip — can be a lifesaver, increasing the chances that they will be returned to you. Sadly, many animals that have been microchipped are not actually registered in the system (their parents’s info is missing or out of date) and are sometimes unable to be reunited with their families.

If you are unsure whether your pet’s microchip is active and properly registered, you can ask your veterinarian to scan them. Happy Howl-o-ween!

And Your Pet’s Emotional Well-Being on Halloween

Does your dog’s job description include barking and protecting whenever a stranger (trick-or-treaters included) arrives at your front door? Think about how your poor pup must feel on Halloween night when that doorbell rings dozens of times within just a few hours. Talk about emotional exhaustion! Consider the following options to preserve their sanity:

  • Confine your dog behind closed doors, ideally in a sound-proof part of your home.

  • Provide trick-or-treaters with a “help yourself” candy bowl on your front walkway.

  • Board your pets elsewhere on Halloween night.

  • Turn off your house lights and skip the holiday altogether. You and your dog can howl at the moon to celebrate instead.

Dr. Shea Cox, DVM, CVPP, CHPV

Dr. Shea Cox is the founder of BluePearl Pet Hospice and is a global leader in animal hospice and palliative care. With a focus on technology, innovation and education, her efforts are changing the end-of-life landscape in veterinary medicine.