As you gear up for the holidays, it is important to steer your pets clear of unhealthy treats, toxic plants and dangerous decorations.

Dr. Peter Falk of the Ocean County Veterinary Hospital in Lakewood said the first thing you need to do is make sure the Christmas tree is secure and untippable.

The tree is an invitation for pets, especially cats, to play — as they see this as a new thing to explore.

And if it's a live tree, Falk suggests only using water: "Even though there are preservatives that say they're pet-friendly, I wouldn't necessarily trust that 100 percent."

He also said you shouldn't add aspirin to the tree water. While there are reports that aspirin will keep a Christmas tree fresher and help it last longer, it's not good if a pet decides to drink the water.

Falk said some of the live trees are sprayed out in the field with a repellent so deer don't eat them. But that repellent could be harmful to your pet, so be sure to ask about that when you get your tree.

Lights can also be a problem. Avoid access so pets don't bite the wires. They can be shocked, electrocuted and even burned.

Falk said pets know when food is wrapped up in a box, even if it's disguised as a pretty present under the tree. He said one way to protect your gifts from zealous pets is to first put the actual gifts away. Then take boxes, wrap them up empty and place under the tree. Not only does it make the tree look pretty with "presents" under them — they can also serve as a barrier for pets having access to other parts of the tree.

Tinsel and ribbon are big no-nos, Falk said. Cats especially love to play with them, and they're not digestible. That can lead to severe vomiting, dehydration and possible surgery.

While many people believe poinsettia plants are extremely toxic to animals if they eat them, that's a myth, Falk said. Poinsettias are only mild irritants. But he said the real toxic plant most seen during the holiday season is the amaryllis. Whether the pet eats the leaves, the flower or the bulb, it doesn't matter — it can cause vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain in an animal.

Mistletoe, holly berries and hybiscus plants should also be avoided, as they can irritate a pet's digestive system if eaten.

Falk also said the holidays are not a good time for pet owners to experiment with food. Pets need to avoid foods containing chocolate, grapes, raisins, macadamia nuts, avocados, onion and garlic as they can get dramatically sick. Even artificial sweeteners found in candy, gum and toothpaste should be avoided. If a dog eats them, the dog's blood sugar can drop, making it hypoglycemic, which can be fatal.

As far as having gatherings, Falk suggests putting pets in a quiet, safe place in the house where they can be calm. There is also medication that vets prescribe that doesn't knock pets out like a tranquilizer, but it reduces their aversion to noise.

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