COMPANION ANIMALS & THE HOLIDAY SEASON

The excitement of gift-giving, family get-togethers, party preparations ... it's all too easy during the holidays to temporarily forget the needs of companion animals.

If you are traveling for the holidays and plan to leave your animals in the care of others, provide written instructions for feeding, medicating, exercise, and handling emergencies. Leave the phone number of your veterinarian or veterinary emergency clinic with the other "essential" phone numbers. Notify your vet of the dates you will be away, the name and number of the sitter, and emergency contact numbers.

If you plan to board them at a kennel or other facility, visit first and make sure you are comfortable with the enclosures your animals will be kept in, the degree of cleanliness, and the professional care they will receive. If there are specific diet or other instructions, make sure they can be carried out. If your animals have special dietary needs, bring your own food and written feeding schedule. Ask if you can leave a familiar toy or blanket with your companion animal to provide some comfort in your absence.

COMPANION ANIMALS & HOLIDAY PARTIES

As most care givers of dogs and cats know, companion animals don't like change. Unfamiliar people, strange decorations, rich food, drinks, smoke, odors, noise, and gaiety can turn a companion animal's environment upside-down. Add a few small children running around in the seasonal excitement and a dog may well react with barking, biting, digestive upsets, or worse. Cats will likely hide under the bed, but may streak outside while the front door is open, so keep an eye on them!

If a party is planned, it may be best to confine your companion animals in a quiet part of the house along with their comfortable and familiar bed blanket and toys. Or leave your dog at a familiar neighbor's or relative's house. Companion animals should never be put outside "just while the party's going." An animal accustomed to the warm house will suffer when the outdoor temperatures are lower than he or she is used to.

If your companion animals are nearby during a festive meal, ask your guests to refrain from "just giving them a little treat." Rich table scraps may upset a companion animal's digestion and result in vomiting or diarrhea. If serving the traditional meals for the holidays, make sure those turkey or chicken bones are dumped in the outside garbage where your dog or cat can't get to them. And outside trash bins need to be secured against plundering by other outdoor animals.

Keep out of harm's way such party treats as chestnuts, peanuts, and candy (especially chocolate, which in large quantities can be fatal to a companion animal). Holiday plants such as poinsettias and mistletoe are also poisonous to animals, and should be kept out of their reach or replaced with artificial replicas. And budgies and some other caged birds, if allowed out of their cages, may suffer ill effects from nibbling on Christmas trees.

ALCOHOL & COMPANION ANIMALS

As with other drugs, keep alcohol away from companion animals. You'd be surprised how many cats and dogs will drink wine, beer or sweet mixed drinks. Only a little can intoxicate a dog, and too much can affect his breathing, put him into shock, even cause his system to shut down. Even if the dog survives, his system will have an unpleasant hangover to deal with. Keep alcohol - including those half-full glasses left over from the party - away from companion animals.

GIFTS FOR COMPANION ANIMALS

Gifts for companion animals should be considered from their perspective. A toy that seems wonderful in the store may be so small a puppy or kitten might swallow it. A luscious treat contrary to a companion animal's accustomed diet may cause discomfort and possibly even disastrous consequences such as diarrhea, vomiting or pancreatitis.

Instead, give dogs "practical" gifts, such as new collars or leashes, and treats such as home-made dog biscuits. Cats can almost always use new scratching posts or litter boxes. And toys that can be easily batted about will stimulate a cat's natural hunting instincts.

CHRISTMAS TREES & COMPANION ANIMALS

Puppies and kittens (as well as adult animals) often see the baubles and branches of a Christmas tree as an invitation to climb the tree, or pull at the branches or ornaments. When decorating the tree, use only garland on the lower branches and keep fragile ornaments, lights and tinsel up on higher branches. (When swallowed, tinsel can cause digestive upsets and intestinal blockage, it may be best to avoid it altogether).

A small latticework fence (available in the gardening section of hardward or discount stores) around the base of the tree helps keep dogs and puppies away. Some chemicals used to extend the life of the Christmas tree are poisonous and lethal to companion animals, so even if there's no room for a fence, the treated area should be covered with a small section of window screen.

Electric cords that light up the trees or other decorations can shock companion animals, and a chewed cord is a serious fire hazard. Keep electrical cords hidden away from curious companion animals by routing the cords through special cord protectors, foam tubes or PVC pipe (available at local hardware stores).