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ASK THE VET: Bad things happen when you give a dog a bone

by Lee Pickett, VMD | December 14, 2020 at 1:46 a.m.

Q: Sirius, our adult son's new pit bull, is the first dog in our family, so we need some advice about gifts. We're thinking of giving him a big, fresh marrow bone for Christmas, but would a sterilized bone be healthier?

A: Bones are harder than teeth, so whether fresh or sterilized, chew bones can break a dog's teeth. Other treats that commonly fracture teeth are antlers, cow hooves, nylon and hard plastic bones, and even ice cubes.

Dogs chomp using their carnassial teeth, large, multirooted teeth near the back of the mouth. If a carnassial tooth breaks, bacteria can enter the pulp canal and cause a painful tooth root abscess.

Treatment requires a root canal or extraction of the fractured tooth. Either procedure is substantially more expensive than buying Sirius a chew toy that won't break his teeth.

Safe chew toys have some "give." You'll know a firm rubber toy is safe for Sirius to chew if you can indent it with your fingernail.

To add to the fun, choose a toy with a hollow center where you can hide a small dog biscuit, xylitol-free peanut butter or doggie cheese from a squirt can.

Don't buy Sirius a tennis ball, since the fuzzy exterior acts like sandpaper that wears down tooth enamel — especially after the ball rolls in the yard and picks up a bit of grit.

Another fun gift idea is a food puzzle, a toy that delivers treats when Sirius manipulates it or rolls it around.

Rope toys and dental chews complete the list my dogs sent to Santa this year.

Q: The kittens we adopted last year are adults now, so we think it's safe to put up a Christmas tree and decorate our apartment. Is there anything we should know to keep our cats safe as we decorate?

A: Start by securing your tree to a nearby window or wall, in case your cats decide to climb it.

Cover the tree stand to prevent them from drinking the water, which can be contaminated with bacteria, tree oils and preservatives.

Since you have cats, you'll have to forgo tinsel, curling ribbon and yarn. If swallowed, they become what veterinarians call linear foreign bodies, objects that block, twist and often slice through the intestines. The sparkle of Christmas will certainly be dulled if one of your cats requires emergency surgery.

Most cats love to bat at hanging decorations, so use green pipe cleaners to affix unbreakable ornaments to your tree.

If your cats nibble houseplants, do without the Christmas varieties. Chewing on an amaryllis, for example, can cause drooling, regurgitation, diarrhea and tremors.

Decorating with mistletoe, a parasitic vine, is particularly risky because it takes on the toxins of its host plant. So, if your cats eat mistletoe berries that fall from the plant, they may experience diarrhea, regurgitation, weakness and heart problems.

Christmas cactus consumption can result in regurgitation, diarrhea and loss of coordination. These clinical signs usually disappear without treatment.

The safest Christmas plant is probably the poinsettia. Its white sap can cause skin irritation, and ingestion of the plant may result in drooling, regurgitation and diarrhea that usually resolve on their own.

Enjoy your cats' antics, but keep them safe as you embrace the joy of Christmas.

Lee Pickett, VMD, practices companion animal medicine in North Carolina. Contact her at


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