By Brielle Gregory
The holidays can be full of stressors—hosting out-of-town family, zipping around for those last-minute gifts, and meeting end-of-year deadlines at work. The last thing you need is to discover your pet nose-deep in a pitcher of spiked eggnog.
Sure, alcohol toxicity in pets is very rare. “We don’t see much of this in vet medicine because alcohol tends to be distasteful to most animals,” says Dr. Steven Friedenberg, an assistant professor in the department of veterinary clinical sciences at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. “They don’t regularly seek this out, and most owners don’t deliberately feed their animals alcohol.”
But during the holidays, sometimes things can get out of your (or your pet’s) control. If your pet does get into alcohol, it can affect him in the same way it affects humans—either get him a little buzzed or, in the most extreme cases, cause him to wind up in the hospital. Here’s what to know about your pet’s alcohol risks.
It Comes Down to Alcohol Content
Rather than the type of alcohol your pet consumes, what you should really be concerned with is how much they get into. “We have this mythos in humans like, ‘I can’t drink tequila,’ or, ‘Rum is really bad for me,’” says Dr. Christine Rutter, a clinical assistant professor in the department of small animal clinical sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at Texas A&M University. “You may have a reaction to something specific in that product, but pound for pound, it’s the ethanol that gets you.”
The same can be applied to pets. But since most pets are much smaller than humans, a smaller dose of alcohol can prove more dangerous to them than it would be to us. “A dog weighs substantially less and is not used to consuming alcohol,” says Rutter. “So processes that break down alcohol are not regulated in a dog the same way as a person who consumes alcohol once in a while.”
If you do find your dog licking up the last remains of a bottle, worry about the strength of alcohol the same way you would if it were a friend who might have drunk too much. Light beers are the least dangerous since their alcohol content is less, followed by craft beers, wine, hard liquors, and finally, grain alcohols like Everclear. And since ethanol is what’s truly dangerous to animals, also be on the lookout for pets getting into cleaning products, mouthwash, or hand sanitizer, some of which have ethanol in them.
Although wine does have grapes in it, which can be extremely dangerous to dogs, there’s no research showing that wine is more dangerous to dogs than other types of alcohol, says Rutter. Rather, it once again all boils down to just how much alcohol your pooch got into.
Be Especially Cautious of Certain Ingredients
Although an animal won’t be likely to take more than one sip of a glass of wine or a scotch on the rocks, certain mixed drinks or alcohol-based cakes could be sweet enough or have ingredients that appeal to animals. And sometimes these other ingredients (chocolate, grapes, raisins, or macadamia nuts, for example) are dangerous in and of themselves. You should also be on the lookout for hidden sources of alcohol, like certain flavorings, including vanilla and almond, and for spices that might contain essential oils, like cinnamon. “That can be irritating to the gastrointestinal tract,” says Rutter.
Notice the Signs of Alcohol Toxicity
When it comes to alcohol toxicity in pets, the signs usually appear the same as they would in humans. “Alcohol poisoning would present similarly as it might present in people,” says Friedenberg. “So there could be gastrointestinal upset. They might vomit or become nauseated, and they can get wobbly.” Other symptoms can include increased thirst and urination, lethargy, disorientation, and, in severe cases, you might notice muscle tremors, paralysis, extremely slow and shallow breathing, seizures, and your pet may lose consciousness, adds Dr. Jennifer Coates, veterinary advisor for petMD.
In mild cases of alcohol exposure, pets generally recover with time and no other treatment, Coates says. “Simply let them ‘sleep it off’ in a safe environment,” she says. “But if you think that your pet could have ingested a large amount of alcohol or is starting to have worrisome clinical signs, seek out immediate veterinary care.” The vet can hospitalize your pet if need be while giving him intravenous fluids and any other treatment that might be necessary.
Although an animal getting alcohol toxicity to the extent of requiring hospitalization is extremely rare, just like for you, the holidays can be an overwhelming time for your pet. “Even if you have an amazingly well-behaved dog, the holidays are full of change in the environment,” says Rutter. Whether it be the introduction of a Christmas tree into your house or more people running around than usual, all the changes during the holidays can cause anxiety in your pet.
That, in turn, can cause them to act in ways they normally wouldn’t, like table surfing or digging in the trash for leftovers. So, avoid any dangerous run-ins for your pet by keeping any risky food or drinks out of their reach. “Even a good dog during stressful times will act up,” says Rutter.