Halloween Holiday Health Hazards for Animals


From the Texas Department of State Health Services, Zoonosis Control


With the arrival of the candy-laden and trickster-oriented holiday of Halloween, there are some risks and health hazards that are of concern for animals, particularly pets like dogs and cats.  To avoid unfortunate mishaps and tragedies, keep in mind the following tips:

With the excitement of strangers ringing doorbells in hopes of receiving a treat, pets can become nervous and might escape from the safety of their home.  Loud or unfamiliar noises created by pranksters or party-goers can also be unsettling for pets and may encourage them to try to escape.  Be sure that your pet is wearing a collar with an identification tag on it for easy tracing.  Another good tracking device is an identification microchip; check with your veterinarian or local animal shelter on how to get this procedure done on your pet.  In an effort to prevent an escape, keep animals confined in a part of the house separate from Halloween party or trick-or-treat activities.

With busier street and sidewalk holiday traffic, an extra precaution if you walk your dog at night is to add reflective collars and tags or a leash with flashing lights to increase the visibility of you and your pet.  It’s also not advisable to take pets along for trick-or-treating, as scared pets might run away or even bite. If you opt to take your pet, the animal should be trained and kept on a leash under the control of an adult.

Being in the midst of the hustle and bustle of holiday activities could provoke even well-tempered animals to bite.  Keep your pets out of situations that could be stress evoking for them.  Animals do not understand costumes! Even if your city or county does not have a leash law, Halloween is a good time to keep your outdoor dogs confined safely and comfortably in the back yard to prevent any mishaps or accidents when costumed strangers approach for tricks or treats.  As with any time of the year, make sure that your pet is up to date on its rabies vaccination.  By law, dogs and cats in Texas are required to be vaccinated against rabies by a veterinarian.  Rabies vaccination is also recommended for any animals that are in close contact with people, such as ferrets and wolf-dog hybrids, as well as horses and other livestock.

A popular treat kept on hand for trick-or-treaters or brought back to the house after a successful Halloween outing in search of treats is chocolate.  Ingestion of chocolate can produce toxicity in animals.  Dogs in particular are attracted to the sweet treats.  The extent of toxicity an animal exhibits after consuming chocolate is based on a variety of factors, such as the type of chocolate ingested, the size of the animal, or an animal’s individual sensitivity to chocolate.  Baker’s or baking chocolate is the form of chocolate that contains a higher concentration of stimulant (theobromine) than either semi-sweet or regular milk chocolate.  Some typical clinical signs of chocolate toxicity include excessive excitability, restlessness, increased heart rate, muscle tremors and seizures, vomiting, and diarrhea.  The last two clinical signs may be transiently present due to an animal consuming any amount of chocolate (i.e., any ingestion of chocolate may cause gastrointestinal upset, but not extensive toxicity).  Severe reactions may result in coma.  The literature gives a wide range of toxic levels, so a veterinarian should be consulted immediately to discuss the appropriate action to be taken if an animal has consumed chocolate.  There is no specific antidote for chocolate toxicity.  Animals can be treated by a veterinarian to address any clinical signs they are exhibiting; vomiting may be induced within 2 hours of the chocolate consumption depending on the amount ingested and other factors.

Another dangerous substance associated with sweet treats is xylitol.  Xylitol is an artificial sweetener found in sugar-free products, such as gum, candy, and baked goods.  In dogs, even a small dose of xylitol can cause toxic effects; it can also be fatal.  If a dog consumes xylitol, it can cause hypoglycemia (sudden decrease in blood glucose) and/or liver failure.  If you suspect that your dog has eaten a sugar-free product with xylitol, you should take it to a veterinarian immediately, as signs of toxicity can start within 30 minutes of ingestion (signs could also be delayed for a few days).  Some of the clinical signs of xylitol toxicity in dogs include weakness, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle tremors, seizures, anemia, increased thirst, increased urination, and bloody or tarry feces.  There have been some indications that ferrets may react to xylitol in the same way that dogs do.

When trick-or-treaters start making their appointed rounds, jewelry that glows in the dark is popular to wear as a safety feature; it can help make a person more visible.  It can also be a popular attractant as a play item for cats.  Glow jewelry1 contains a chemical called dibutyl phthalate.  Although this chemical may have the potential to cause death via respiratory paralysis, cats generally will only ingest a minimal amount due to its unpleasant taste and the fact that only a small amount of the chemical is present in the jewelry.  Cats that have bitten into the jewelry may exhibit heavy salivation, hyperactivity, and aggressive behavior, but they typically recover within minutes.  Immediately after a cat happens to ingest this chemical, it helps to feed it small quantities of milk, canned food, or tuna juice to dilute the chemical in its mouth.  Wash off any drops of the chemical that might be on the cat’s coat and flush the cat’s eyes with water if there has been ocular exposure.  There is no known antidote for dibutyl phthalate; cats that have ingested large quantities should be closely monitored and given supportive treatment if warranted.

If you know or suspect that an animal has ingested anything that could possibly produce toxicity, immediately consult a veterinarian, animal emergency clinic, or poison control center.  The Texas Poison Center Network can be reached at 1-800-222-1222.  The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center can be reached at 1-800-548-2423.

Halloween is a holiday that tends to bring out the mischievous nature of people, sometimes to the point of them becoming malicious.   Animals can become the unfortunate targets of malevolent acts, so be sure to keep them in comfortable, safe, secured locations.  Cats tend to be more at risk, so keep them inside.  Black cats (due to the folklore associating them with bad luck, witchcraft, and Halloween), calicos, and tortoiseshells (due to their Halloween colors) may have more of a chance of being targeted.     

With the fall, temperatures begin to drop and cold winds start to blow.  The U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Animal Welfare Act recommends that the ambient temperature should not drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, especially when sick, aged, or young animals are present.  If it does, plan to supplement the animal’s environment with auxiliary heating and additional bedding.  Additionally, animals should always be provided with adequate protection and shelter from the direct effect of wind, rain, or snow.  Remember, animals in Texas are not acclimated to cold weather, so they must be protected from extreme weather conditions accordingly.

Thanks is given to Dr. John C. Haliburton, former Head of Diagnostic Toxicology for the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory in Amarillo, for his assistance and expertise in preparing this article.

1Rosendale, ME.  Veterinary Medicine 1999;August:703.

(S:) ZC\PWILSON\HOLHAZHALL 2012.doc     7-31-12


Texas Department of State Health Services

Health Service Region 7

Zoonosis Control Program

2408 South 37th Street

Temple, Texas 76502

Desk:  254.771.6749

Main phone:  254.778.6744

Extension:  6749

Fax:  254.773.9358

Program email:  HSR7.ZOO@dshs.state.tx.us


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