The Beast Doctor's Lair

AUTHOR: Bronwyn Dawson, D.V.M.
Dr. Domotor's Animal House Veterinary Hospital
FROM: The FerretPaw Print, November/December 2000
DATE: November 7, 2000

Holiday Hazards

In Southern California, the brush fires are burning, temperatures are sizzling and the Santa Ana's are shriveling any leftover vegetation. And of course Thanksgiving and Christmas aren't far behind. Fall may have an unusual way of announcing itself in our area, but true southern Californians know that cooler weather and the holiday season are right around the corner.

The holidays bring joy, but also special concerns for all pet owners; concerns which are most often intensified for ferret owners. More visitors, more bustle, more decorations, more rich food, less attention to little creatures underfoot can add up to many more potential dangers for the animals in the household. Due to their small size, inquisitive natures, and extreme oral fixations, ferrets are at greater risk than their cat and dog housemates. However, we can help our little Effs out with a few preventive measures and some extra ferret proofing.

Every Christmas, veterinarians are bombarded with queries about mistletoe and poinsettia. Somehow these common holiday decorative plants are seen as not much less poisonous than deadly nightshade and oleander. The truth is that most pets are not interested in eating these plants in the first place and their inherent toxicity is quite low. Both can cause stomach upsets and digestive disorders, primarily vomiting and diarrhea. Poinsettia is the more dangerous as it has an acidic milky sap which can cause burning of the mouth and excess salivation. As we know, Ferret cannot vomit effectively, but they are easily nauseated and will not eat if they have any type of sore or run in their delicate mouths. I have seen one ferret who did eat several poinsettia leaves and one stalk; that ferret was extremely distressed and has to be hospitalized on fluids and anti-nausea medications for several days. (So if they will eat a bitter plant such as Poinsettia, why do they gag on Proglycem®?)

Chocolate is in abundance during these next few months and presents much more danger to all companion animals than the holiday plants. Ferrets have a great sweet tooth and most of them love chocolate. Chocolate contains theobromine, a cardiac and central nervous system stimulant. In all species, it causes increased heart rate with the potential for cardiac arrhythmias; it can also cause extreme hyperactivity leading up to muscle tremors and even seizures. Chocolate's ill effects are not necessarily does-related, although the more chocolate an animal eats, the greater likelihood of toxicity. Baker's chocolate contains much more theobromine and is far more dangerous than milk chocolate. A small animal like a ferret does not need to eat much of any kind of chocolate to show toxicity; animals with dangerously elevated heart rates are given medication to slow down the heart and fluid therapy can dilute the toxic chemicals. There is no safe amount of chocolate; please exercise vigilance when putting out the See's candy and make sure no little Eff sneaks off with a piece.

Holiday candy and sweets in general are a danger to ferrets; not only for their digestive effects but because of the ferret propensity to bite off more than he can chew. Can't chew it? Just swallow it! And swallow they do, sometimes resulting in an obstruction of the digestive tract. Candy corn and other Halloween type treats are more dangerous than cookies and other larger sweet treats. Candy corn is about the size of ear plugs, the other ferret suicide tool; it fits in the mouth but is just a little too big to chew conformably. Last year during the holiday season I removed a candy corn from one ferret and a (formerly) chocolate covered peanut from another ferret during the same weekend.

Electrical burns from holiday lighting are another concern for the ferret owner. Cords for the Christmas lights, that twinkling Halloween goblin in the front hall, and the new widescreen TV for Thanksgiving weekend football games are new additions to the landscape and, therefor, inherently interesting to a little Eff. Twinkle bulbs are especially fascinating, candles are fun, and those mechanized Halloween toys that move cannot be resisted. Chewing on cords can cause serious oral burns. If the ferret is truly assiduous, she/he can be electrocuted or can suffer sever cardiac and lung problems.

Candles and bulbs are another source of burns; remember also that extinguished candles are still a danger as they look like a great waxy chew toy to the ferret.

Ferrets who are allowed a great deal of freedom in the house are prone to "inattention events;" trampling, inadvertent storage in a cupboard or box, wandering away through an open door. These accidents can happen at any time of the year, but with the excitement of visitors, parties, Christmas tress, packages, the holiday season is a prime time for these mishaps.

A little care now can save a great deal of grief and trauma later for all the household critters, but especially the curious weasels. Love and Happy Holidays to the little Effs from the Beast Doctor. I do not want you spending Christmas with me at the emergency clinic.

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