Pets & Halloween Safety: Candy, Chocolate & Strangers

halloween candy and petsTypically, by the first week of October I have already received at least 3 calls from owners whose dogs ingested chocolate candy bars that were purchased for Halloween. I must admit that, while I proceeded to make the necessary recommendations to aid or monitor these potentially sick pets, in the back of my mind the prevailing thought was not how these dogs got into trouble, but how impressive it was that their owners were so well organized that they managed to purchase their candy two weeks before Halloween. Like most holidays, I will barely pull it all together to run to the grocery store and grab a bag of Snickers when I see the kids in costume start to descend on the block. So, here’s a tip of my hat to all you up-to-date, Daytime Planner parents and pet owners, along with a few words of what you can plan for to keep the holiday safe for pets.

First, the aforementioned chocolate candy bars; it’s not the sugar, it’s the chocolate, that causes veterinarians to worry. Chocolate’s toxic properties can be blamed on the caffeine and theobromine it contains, components that belong to a class of compounds, known as methylxanthines, who affect the body in general by increasing cellular metabolism. When ingested at toxic levels, theobromine will induce muscle tremors, vomiting and diarrhea, excessive urine production, heart arrhythmias, seizures, and sometimes death. Caffeine can add to some of these effects, making the symptoms worse. These toxins are in the greatest concentration in the darker chocolates; unsweetened baking chocolate contains 8 times the levels found in milk chocolate. Since most candy that is given out is the “safer” milk chocolate, this will reduce some of the risks of exposures. However, it is possible, given the quantity available around Halloween, for a pet to eat enough of it to lead to advanced symptoms, or at least make it unhappy. I’ve treated a dog that ingested 5 lb. worth of chocolate (plus foil wrappers); he ate it all in a few minutes left unattended next to the candy bowl. Luckily, he was a big dog, he ingested milk chocolate, and was treated promptly. He survived, but not before getting pretty sick.

halloween chocolate dogsObviously, the goal should be to avoid the whole messy situation. And I know that isn’t always easy; as a kid, I used to keep my candy stash in a bag in my bedroom, to keep my sisters from getting into the best pieces (a failed endeavor, since I found out later it was my parents who usually got into our haul). Thank God our dog never managed to find it. Today, one can be a little smarter than my family used to be. Keep the kids’ hoards from their door-to-door visits stored up on a tall shelf out of reach. And take the simple precaution of not leaving the candy that’s getting passed out unattended.

The hazards posed by trick-or-treaters aren’t quite as obvious to us pet owners, but from a pet’s perspective, they can be pretty menacing. Strangers repeatedly showing up at the front door, loud shouts and laughter, and over-sized clothing, all can impart an air of danger for a pet. After all, they don’t know that it is Halloween, or what that entails; they just see people invading their territory. A good number of pets won’t recognize their own owners if they are wearing a mask, so the rest of these costumed beings may not even appear as human to them. So, it is understandable how they may be on edge, more likely to scratch or bite with little “apparent” provocation.

Again, take some simple steps to avoid these liabilities. Don’t allow anyone to approach a pet while wearing a costume; owners and visitors alike should remove masks or frightening clothing until the pet gets comfortable (something it may not do for awhile). Create a safe haven a pet can escape to if it becomes frightened, or confine it in a closed room or kennel if it is unlikely to relax. This is especially important for dogs, who often think they must “defend” the property against the “invaders”. Confinement will also separate pets from well-meaning hands that might reach inside to try to pet them when the treats are being passed out. And last, keep them indoors; this is always mentioned for black cats, but any animal runs the risk of being a victim of a “harmless” prank, being given something to eat that may be toxic, or finding an opportunity to escape.

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