Cooler temperatures — and pumpkins piled high in front of almost every store in town — are sure signs that autumn is officially upon us.
And with October comes that good old all-American holiday of Halloween. Of course, Halloween isn’t really American — in fact, it probably started around 2,000 years ago as a Celtic harvest festival You’d never know that from the $8 billion U.S. consumers are expected to spend on the holiday. Yeah, that’s “billion,” with a “b.” Clearly, the Great Pumpkin has long since abandoned his solitary pumpkin patch.
So what, you may ask, does Halloween have to do with dogs? Other than getting them dressed up in some humiliating Darth Vader or Princess Bride costume, which you’ll, of course, immortalize in dozens of equally humiliating photos.
Turns out, the holiday has a surprising amount to do with dogs — specifically, their lives.
You may be one of those soft-hearted pet parents who likes to give your four-footed companions human treats like candy and cookies. The danger comes when those sweet treats contain chocolate, raisins, macadamia nuts or the sugar substitute xylitol.
Let’s take each one of those ingredients in turn.
Chocolate: As little as 8 ounces of milk chocolate or 1 ounce of dark baker’s chocolate can put a 50-pound dog in a serious health crisis, which can even lead to death. A group of chemicals in chocolate called methylxanthines are responsible, but those chemicals vary with the darkness of the chocolate. Think of it this way: the darker it is, the more dangerous it is.
White chocolate, for instance, has very few methylxanthines and is far less toxic than dark chocolate, which has very high levels of methylxanthines. Unsweetened cocoa powder is the most toxic of all. Problem signs can range from vomiting, increased thirst, stomach pain and restlessness to severe agitation, tremors, irregular heartbeat, fever and death.
Raisins (and grapes): Think the oatmeal-raisin cookies you baked for your Halloween party would be a healthy treat for your dog? Think again. Grapes and raisins have been associated with fatal kidney failure in some dogs, although the exact cause isn’t clear.
Your pup may be one who can eat these fruits with no problem at all, or she could be among those who develop life-threatening problems after eating just a few grapes or raisins. Unless you’re willing to take a chance with her life, it’s better to be safe and keep these fruits out of the reach of your dog.
Macadamia nut: While most nuts aren’t harmful to dogs — and many dogs go nuts over nuts — macadamias are the exception. Macadamia nut toxicosis is very seldom fatal in dogs, but it can make your pup extremely uncomfortable. Affected dogs are in obvious pain, show weakness in their rear legs, develop tremors, and can run a low-grade fever for up to two days.
Unlike the dire prognosis for a dog who’s eaten a bagful of Hershey’s Kisses or two dozen raisin cookies, most dogs who’ve eaten macadamia nuts will gradually improve in one or two days.
Xylitol: What on earth is xylitol and what does it have to do with my dog at Halloween?
Xylitol is one of the truckload of low-cal sweeteners found in dozens of foods today. The most common item containing xylitol is sugar-free gum (although many gum manufacturers have switched to sorbitol and malitol). Xylitol is also used in sugar-free and diabetic candies, cookies and cakes, and many dental products such as mouthwash, toothpaste and breath mints.
I don’t imagine you’ll be getting toothpaste in your Halloween goodie bag, but sugar-free gum or candy could be on the menu. You may think your dog wouldn’t eat gum, but you’d be wrong. Take it from me. Casey got into my purse, and — you get the picture. Fortunately, my gum was sweetened with sorbitol, not xylitol, and he was fine.
If as a human you eat too much of a food containing xylitol, the worst that can happen would be a bad case of diarrhea. In dogs, however, xylitol can lead to a critical drop in blood sugar levels, which can lead to disorientation, seizures, vomiting, and, in some cases, fatal liver failure.
If you think your dog has eaten anything containing chocolate, raisins or grapes, macadamia nuts or xylitol, contact your veterinarian immediately.
Aside from food products, Halloween can also be a scary time for your pets. Imagine yourself as a dog, and when the doorbell rings, suddenly standing before you is not one, not two, but an entire horde of fearsome and weird-looking creatures that bear no resemblance whatsoever to the humans you’re accustomed to seeing.
Depending upon your temperament, your first reaction could be anywhere between stark terror and vicious attack. Either way signals major problems for you and your human caretaker.
Since we can’t control what kinds of costumes our Halloween trick-or-treaters may be wearing, the best idea is to put your dog in the backyard, or better yet, in another room with the door closed so he won’t be exposed to the ghoulies and ghosties.
Finally, before you go to bed on Halloween night, check through your stash for that gooey brownie, the oatmeal-raisin-macadamia nut cookie or the sugar-free candy, and make sure it’s all well out of reach of any counter-surfing canine.
Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her golden retriever, Casey, (hence, “Casey’s Corner”). You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re looking for a golden, check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue.