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Trick or Treat... or Trip to the ER?

Scarier than Halloween Kills.

by Dr. Shea Cox
October 24, 2021
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: at least a handful of pups will arrive at my ER to be treated every 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.

Chocolate

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; calculations can be made, based on your pet’s body weight, to determine if it 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 such an uncommon occurrence. Any dog who has ingested a xylitol-containing product should be examined by a veterinarian immediately.

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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 as 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, as 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 owner’s info is missing or out of date) and we are sometimes unable to reunite 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!

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Dr. Shea Cox

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.