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Pets' gift: a tummy ache?

It's just days before Christmas and all through the house, the dog and cat are playing with Christmas tinsel, blinking tree lights and presents wrapped with colorful ribbons.

If that's the scene in your house, keep the emergency number for a veterinarian close by.

The holidays -- and all its trimmings -- can be hazardous to your pets' health.

Danger hangs from Christmas trees, around wrapped gifts and in bowls of candy. Adding to the peril: fatty holiday foods, electrical cords on the floor, poisonous plants on table tops -- even the tree and the water underneath it can be harmful.

"The holiday season -- from Thanksgiving to Christmas -- is a notoriously busy time" for veterinarians, said Chris Dobbins, medical director at Fresno Pet Emergency and Referral Center in north Fresno.

Vets prepare for the dog that ate the turkey leg and the cat that swallowed the tinsel, Dobbins said.

Stomach upsets are the most common side-effect for dogs and cats that find the Christmas tree, its decorations and holiday goodies too tempting to ignore.

Roger Tsuruda, a veterinarian at Sunnyside Pet Hospital, has treated lots of holiday-sick pets in his 33 years in practice.

Pet owners should use common sense, he said. "Anything edible should be out of reach."

Cats love to play with and eat tinsel, Tsuruda said. But swallowing it can cause an intestinal blockage. And strangely enough, he said, "dogs have been known to swallow ornaments." Once swallowed, the ornament has to be surgically removed, he said.

Even snacking on pine needles can make a cat or dog sick.

Every Christmas, Cathy Perez, 40, of southeast Fresno, watches for signs of tree nibbling by her Siamese cat, Simon.

"Every year, he'll eat the tree," she said. "We'll see spit up of pine needles."

This year, she became concerned when Simon became listless after eating needles from the family's flocked Christmas tree.

She took him to the vet. A shot to calm the cat's stomach worked, Perez said.

Pets also love chocolate as much, it seems, as their owners.

But a small square of Baker's chocolate can be toxic to a small dog, Dobbins said.

Chocolate contains chemicals that resemble caffeine, he said. The chemical makes the animal's heart beat fast and raises the blood pressure.

"They're bouncing off the wall just like a kid who got in the candy jar," he said.

In the past three weeks, he's treated three chocolate-poisoned dogs, Dobbins said. "It can be very lethal."

Dobbins and Tsuruda said the No. 1 rule for the holidays is to make sure pets don't have access to the wrong foods and chocolate. They recommend putting candy in covered bowls and out of reach. Food scraps from holiday meals should be disposed outside in the garbage can.

As for tinsel and ornaments, make sure they're high enough on the tree to be out of reach.

And make sure pets can't get to the water underneath the tree. Additives and fertilizers in it can be unhealthy and the stagnant water can breed bacteria.

As for extension cords that can become chew toys -- cover them with carpets or put them behind couches.

Poinsettias aren't as poisonous as their reputation suggests, but they can make animals sick to their stomachs. And lilies are deadly to cats. Keep them out of reach, the vets said.

Pet owners should watch animals for vomiting, diarrhea and lethargy. "One-time vomiting, I wouldn't be as concerned, but if he's acting differently or repeatedly vomits, that would be an alarm," Tsuruda said.

It never hurts to call the vet, Dobbins said. If the veterinarian is unavailable, the office can refer pet owners to emergency pet hospitals for care after hours and on weekends.

But prevention is the best medicine. Dobbins said following a few safety tips "will save a lot of visits to the emergency room over the holidays."

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