Delicious Dangers

by Beth McEwen

‘Tis the season that many of us are enjoying extra indulgences. While these little extras may not be enough to throw off our New Year’s resolutions, even a small amount could cause poisoning in our cats and dogs. Here are seven of those toxic treats to watch out for:

Sugar-Free Items Containing Xylitol

Even the most knowledgeable pet owners may not have heard about this very dangerous hazard. Xylitol, an artificial sweetener in products like sugar-free gum, candy, mints, and even peanut butter, causes a sudden release of insulin in a dog’s body that leads to seriously low blood sugar. It can also cause liver damage. Xylitol acts fast; you could see vomiting, lethargy, and other signs of poisoning in less than 15 minutes. If left untreated, the condition can be fatal. Ensure your pets don’t have access to sugar-free baked goods or open purses containing sugar-free gum and mints.

Chocolate and Cocoa

It’s one of our favorite holiday indulgences, but chocolate can cause seizures and death in dogs and cats (although felines seem to be less attracted to chocolate). Darker chocolate, such as unsweetened baker’s chocolate, is more toxic than milk or white chocolate. The chemical toxicity is due to a methylxanthine (like theobromine and caffeine), and results in vomiting, diarrhea, hyperactivity, inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis), an abnormal heart rhythm and seizures. In smaller dogs, even the wrappers from candy can result in a secondary obstruction in the stomach or intestines. Keep chocolate, especially dark chocolates and chocolate-covered espresso beans, safely put away from curious snouts.

Coffee and Tea

If you have guests over for after-dinner coffee or tea, be aware of where those tea bags or coffee grounds end up. Caffeine, a chemical cousin to theobromine and methylxanthine in chocolate, is significantly more dangerous to pets than to people. While 1-2 laps of coffee or soda may not contain enough caffeine to cause poisoning in most pets, the ingestion of moderate amounts of coffee grounds, tea bags, or even 1-2 diet pills can very easily cause death in small dogs and cats. Symptoms of caffeine overdose include hyperactivity, restlessness, vomiting, seizures, abnormal heart rhythm or hyperthermia (elevated body temperature).

Macadamia Nuts

These small nuts may look harmless, but they can poison dogs who get into a bowl of them or swipe a cookie containing them. The toxic mechanism is unknown but can affect nerve function (specifically, the motor neurons, neuromuscular junctions, muscle fibers or neurotransmitters). Clinical signs of poisoning include depression, weakness, vomiting, tremors, lack of coordination (commonly in the hind quarters) and joint stiffness.

Grapes and Raisins

Hide the fruitcake! While the specific toxic agent in grapes and raisins are not yet known, records show that this seemingly innocent fruit can cause kidney failure in cats and dogs. The most common early symptom is vomiting, usually within a couple of hours after ingestion. The acute kidney failure from a toxic dose will usually develop within 1-3 days. Red, white, purple, seeded or seedless, the type of raisins or grapes does not matter. However, raisins, being essentially “concentrated” grapes, are significantly more toxic than the fresh fruit. The toxic dose for raisins is less than .2 oz/lb of body weight.

Unbaked Bread Dough

Around the holidays, many of us are dusting off bread makers and baking tins that haven’t seen the light of day since last Christmas; but here’s a toxin that would probably surprise most pet owners: unbaked bread dough. If your pet ingests it, the dough can expand in the stomach. In some dogs, it’s possible for the stomach to twist (commonly called “bloat”), cutting off blood supply—a condition requiring emergency surgery. The yeast in the dough can also produce alcohol, leading to seizures and respiratory failure.


Speaking of alcohol, that’s another holiday treat to keep away from your animals. Alcohol’s toxicity is heavily dependent on body weight, and pets weigh a lot less than people do, which means it takes much less alcohol to make them dangerously sick.

The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) is your best resource for any animal poison-related emergency, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If you think your pet may have ingested a potentially poisonous substance, call (888) 426-4435.

Beth McEwen, owner of Mind Your Manners Dog Training, has been working with dogs and their families for almost 20 years. Learn more at




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