Halloween Pet Safety Tips and Tricks

With Halloween right around the corner, I thought it would be a good time to go over basic pet safety so that we can all participate in the spooky fun without any pet health scares. This article covers common pet toxicities and irritants, choking and fire hazards, costume concerns, anxiety and fear aggression and the importance of pet identification.

Common Halloween Pet Toxcities & Irritants

Theobromine (Chocolate)

Theobromine is an alkaloid compound that is present in a variety of plants, most notably cacao seeds. Theobromine acts as a diuretic, cardiac stimulant and smooth muscle relaxant. Dogs are unable to metabolize theobromine the same way humans do. In fact, the half life (the time it takes the concentration of a substance in the body to be reduced by half) of theobromine in humans is around 2-3 hours compared to 18 hours in dogs!!! The darker the chocolate, the higher the theobromine concentration. Severity of toxicity depends on the concentration of theobromine ingested (type of chocolate & amount) and the dog’s weight. 

Dark chocolate
Mild toxicity occurs at 20 mg/kg, moderate at 40 mg/kg, severe at 60mg/kg with fatalities occurring at or above 200mg/kg.

Symptoms of mild toxicity include…

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Drooling 
  • PU/PD – increased thirst and urination
  • Panting 
  • Restlessness

Symptoms of moderate to severe toxicity include…

  • Tachycardia (increased heart rate)
  • Cardiac arrhythmias 
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Tremors
  • Twitching 
  • Seizures
Chopped white chocolate chunks
White chocolate poses no risk of theobromine toxicity, however, the high sugar and fat content can cause GI upset and pancreatitis.

Xylitol (found in common candies)

Xylitol is an artificial zero-calorie sweetener that has become a popular additive in foods because of its low glycemic index. It is found in sugar free gum products, candies, breath mints, pudding snacks, cough syrup, gummy vitamins, supplements, mouthwash, and toothpaste. Certain brands of peanut butter also contain xylitol, so make sure to always look at the ingredients before giving it to your dog. Blood sugar is regulated by the release of insulin from the pancreas. In humans, xylitol does not stimulate the release of insulin, however, it does in dogs. The rapid release of insulin in dogs causes a significant drop in blood sugar known as hypoglycemia. This occurs between 10 and 60 minutes after ingestion and can be fatal if left untreated! Severity of toxicity depends on the concentration of xylitol ingested and the weight of the dog. Hypoglycemia occurs at 100mg/kg. The higher the concentration ingested the higher the risk of liver failure. 

Clinical symptoms include…

  • hypoglycemia (low blood glucose level)
  • vomiting
  • weakness
  • depression
  • lethargy
  • poor coordination and balance
  • seizures
  • tremors
  • blindness
  • restlessness
  • liver failure
  • coma

Bring the packaging (gum container, candy wrapper, bottle etc.) to the clinic as the veterinarian may be able to estimate the concentration of xylitol ingested. This information is really useful for treating a known or suspected toxicity. 

Sugar-free gum containing xylitol
Sugar-free gum containing xylitol

Glow Sticks - Are They Toxic to Pets?

Surprisingly no! (but they are an irritant)

In the article “Will Biting Into a Glow Stick Make My Pet Sick?,” Dr. Tina Winsmer states that glow sticks are not toxic to dogs and cats. Glow sticks contain dibutyl phthalate, an oily substance that does not cause toxicity in dogs and cats in small volumes. Cases related to dibutyl phthalate ingestion are more commonly reported in cats than dogs. This is probably because cats are attracted to their fluorescent colors and may accidentally puncture a hole in the plastic of the glow stick while they play. Dibutyl phthalate has an unpleasant bitter taste and will often cause excessive drooling in cats because of a strong taste aversion. It may also stimulate vomiting and trigger behavioral changes, such as aggression, irritation and hiding. Pets are more than likely to stop playing with or chewing on the glow stick once they get a taste, however, plastic ingestion is still possible. If you have reason to believe that your pet has ingested plastic, make sure to look out for foreign body signs, such as bloody vomit and diarrhea, abdominal pain, anorexia, straining to defecate and lethargy. If you notice these symptoms, reach out to your veterinarian for further advice. In regards to removing the bitter taste, you can gently remove saliva with a tissue and offer a high value treat, such as salmon or tuna. Once they are calm, turn off the lights and check if there’s any residue on your pet’s body. If so, remove with a warm, damp cloth. 

Glow sticks

Although pets usually stop biting or chewing the glow sticks as soon as they taste the bitter substance, it is good to be aware that your pet may have ingested some fragments if she actually does break the stick. In that case, the recommendation is to bulk up the diet with bread, canned pumpkin, etc., and watch for signs of bloody vomiting or blood in the stool. Of course, if you have any concerns about your pet's health, you should always check with your veterinarian.

Dr. Tina Winsmer, medical director of the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center

Halloween Costume Concerns

I am totally for dressing up your pet for Halloween. It’s fun, festive and a great opportunity to snap some adorable photographs. With that said, it’s important to make sure that your pet’s costume does not cause them any discomfort. You should be able to fit a few fingers underneath the costume. Costumes that are too tight restrict movement and can cause breathing difficulties. I recommend never leaving your pet unattended while they are wearing a costume because it could get caught on something and lead to unnecessary panic and injury. I’d also like to mention that tolerance levels differ in pets. Keep in mind that simply putting on a costume may cause a high level of distress in certain pets. 

Dog dressed up for Halloween

Electrical and Fire Hazards During Halloween

Carving pumpkins and setting them on the porch is a fun Halloween tradition. I’m sure most of you know that candles pose a hazard to pets and small children, however, it’s easy to become distracted by the hustle and bustle of Halloween festivities. Therefore, I recommended creating a safety plan ahead of time. Dogs and cats, especially kittens, are often curious and will get close to the flame to investigate leading to burns or singed fur and whiskers. In addition, it’s possible that they may accidentally knock over a lit candle or Jack-O-Lantern and start a house fire. The safest option for people with pets is to use candle alternatives, such as LED tea lights. If you are using candles or oil lamps to decorate your house, make sure they are out of reach (and there’s few places a determined cat cannot get to!).

Cat beside pumpkins at halloween

Dogs and cats are known to chew things around the house, this is especially true for kittens and puppies. To eliminate the risk of electrocution, make sure that Halloween decorations with electrical cords are taped securely to the floor or wall. Chewing an electrical cord can result in a life threatening electrical shock or burn to their mouth and tongue. Additionally, chewed electrical cords and exposed wires can start a house fire. Battery operated decorations and props are safer for use, especially in households with pets who are chronic chewers of household objects. Keep batteries out of your pet’s reach. Chewed or swallowed batteries can result in chemical burns, metabolic disturbances and gastrointestinal blockage.

Electrical tape
Electrical tape

Choking and Suffocation Hazards

While dressing up your pet for Halloween is a ton of fun, keep in mind that costumes pose a choking hazard. If swallowed, small decorations and dangly objects can become lodged in the throat, windpipe, stomach or intestines resulting in a partial or complete airway or gastrointestinal obstruction. Decorating your house is fun and spooky but make sure to be mindful of the type and placement of decorations. Your pet may perceive cobwebs and plastic spiders as prey to hunt and kill. Other choking hazards include: lollipop sticks, hard candies and plastic eyeballs. These types of decorations can easily get caught in your pet’s throat and cause them to choke. In addition, trick or treaters may accidently leave behind hazardous items, such as pieces of their costume or candies. Once trick or treating is over, be sure to check your front porch and yard for potential hazards before your pet has the opportunity to do so. 

Plastic bags and large wrappers pose a suffocation risk to your pet. A dog or cat with a plastic bag around their head will suffocate within 3-5 minutes. To prevent this from happening, keep trash and trash bags out of reach. To make bags safe, create a flap by cutting the bag along the bottom and on one side. Properly dispose of garbage in a sealed bin.

hard halloween candy
plastic bag

Pet Anxiety and Aggression

Keep in mind that pets don’t understand what Halloween is. It’s not uncommon for pets to be anxious around the holidays. Put yourself in their position. There’s loud sounds, lots of new people, decorations and costumes. There’s several environmental changes and they are unable to understand the reason. Dogs that are naturally easy-going and laid back may not be bothered by the changes, but it may be very anxiety provoking for timid or fearful dogs. As someone who suffers from generalized anxiety, I can’t imagine being put in an unfamiliar or uncomfortable situation without a reason. Each individual human and animal is different. Some of us adapt well to new environments and new people while others struggle a bit more. Pets that are anxious typically display specific behaviors and some may be subtle while others are more noticeable, including: excessive barking or howling, panting at rest, pacing, shivering, hiding, digging, excessive licking or chewing, grinding teeth, restlessness and lack of appetite. 

I recommend creating a safe place in your home that is accessible to your pet. This provides them with the opportunity to remove themselves from an anxiety provoking environment, creates a sense of safety and security and offers them time to decompress. The “safe” place should be cozy, quiet and free of distractions. This can be accomplished by setting up a crate with a bed or blanket in a quiet room of the house. There are natural calming aids that can help calm pets in stressful situations, including calming chews (contains melatonin, thiamin, chamomile, L-theanine, L-tryptophan), CBD treats, pheromone sprays or a diffuser, pressure calming garments, relaxing music and essential oils.

Dog wearing Thunder Shirt
Thunder Shirt
Greyhound in dog crate
An accessible and cozy safe space

A typically gentle animal may become aggressive in the face of fear. This is called fear aggression. Fear aggression typically occurs when an animal is forced to remain in a fear provoking environment or a continuous trigger. That’s why I recommend that you provide your pet with a safe place when able. It’s important to be able to recognize signs of fear in pets. By doing so, you’ll be able to diffuse the situation and minimize the chance of an aggressive episode. Signs of fear aggression include: muscle tension, lip licking, excessive panting, licking or sniffing, head turning, yawning, freezing, whining, growling, and the “whale eye” expression (exaggerated sideways glance that shows the whites of their eyes).

Fearful Posture
Fearful Posture
Whale eye
Whale eye

The Importance of Pet Identification

Let’s talk about steps that can be taken to prevent lost dogs this Halloween. I would refrain from bringing your dog trick-or-treating unless you are certain that he/she won’t be bothered by noise and a lot of unfamiliar people or has gone with you before without any problems. I would recommend walking dogs that are fearful around other dogs, strangers or loud noises in the late afternoon before trick-or-treating starts and supervising potty breaks in the backyard. If you are planning on taking your dog trick-or-treating, check beforehand that their harness or collar fits appropriately and don’t let them off the leash. Keep your dog in a gated or closed room to prevent them from running out the front door while giving out candy. Keep indoor/outdoor cats inside for the evening. All pets should be microchipped and the microchip registry should have accurate, up-to-date contact information. In addition, pets should wear an identification tag that includes at minimum 2 contact numbers and an address. 

We suggest that the tag should have the cell phone number of the pet parent, the cell number of an emergency contact, the land line of the pet parent, and if the person is comfortable doing so, the street address of their home.

Dr. Emily Weiss, a certified-applied animal behaviorist and vice president of shelter research and development for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
Pet Microchip Scanner
Pet Microchip Scanner

 While we are preparing for Halloween, I believe it’s important to make sure our pets have proper identification. I don’t want to even begin to imagine the worry and heartbreak that one experiences when their pet is missing. In fact, I met a lady once at the dog park who told me a heart wrenching story about her senior dog that had escaped from the very same dog park under the care of a pet sitter while she was away on vacation. She rounded up a search team to go out in the woods and look for her. Sadly, even after several months of searching she was not found. I mention this not to instill fear, but rather to remind everyone that this could happen to any of us. The woman thought it would never happen to her until the day it did! 

A study of more than 7,700 stray animals at animal shelters showed that dogs without microchips were returned to their owners 21.9% of the time, whereas microchipped dogs were returned to their owners 52.2% of the time. Cats without microchips were reunited with their owners only 1.8% of the time, whereas microchipped cats went back home 38.5% of the time.

Lord et al, JAVMA, July 15, 2009
Dachshunds at Halloween

Have a safe and fun Halloween!

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