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Veterinarians have long been the primary source of client education regarding holiday hazards, but in recent years practice staff has assumed an increasingly important role for many reasons:
- Receptionists, technicians, groomers and other staff members tend to spend more time with clients than do practitioners, who are usually too busy tending to the immediate medical needs of their patients to discuss potential holiday hazards.
- Often more aware of potential holiday hazards as a result of casual conversation with clients, staff are in a better position to offer immediate advice and education.
- Clients often feel more comfortable asking questions of staff members rather than "bothering" the veterinarian.
- Office staff can more efficiently distribute flyers, newsletters and other educational materials to clients who visit the clinic for routine pet care.
"Even though holiday hazards are important, the topic often isn't at the top of our have-to-talk-about list," said Wayne Hunthausen, DVM, owner of Animal Behavior Consultations in Westwood, Kan. "There is so much information that [practitioners] must provide to people now, information that is usually more pertinent than holiday hazards, such as heart worms, fleas, vaccination protocols and dental prophylaxis. For many practitioners, holiday hazards are an issue more effectively handled by staff and through passive education such as newsletters."
"Staff members are absolutely vital when it comes to hazard education and prevention," said Ilona Rodan, DVM, hospital director at Cat Care Clinic in Madison, Wis. "They talk with clients and are able to offer advice when they feel the client is in greatest need of education. Most clients appreciate the annual reminder."
To educate effectively, practitioners and staff must be aware of all of the potential hazards that the holidays present to pets. The American Animal Hospital Association (AHAA) and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) provide literature on both holiday and seasonal hazards through faxed press releases and their web sites (www.aahanet.org and www.avma.org respectively).
The majority of a practice's clients have probably kept animals most of their lives and are at least somewhat aware of these hazards, often having dealt with them in the past. The one client most in need of education, say practitioners and their staff, is the first-time pet owner.
"New pet owners are most taken by surprise by their pets' behavior toward the Christmas tree or the lights or the decorations," says Gretchen Graham, assistant hospital manager at The Cat Doctor in Atlanta, Ga. "Clients who have had cats for a long time are pretty wise as to what to expect, but new pet owners are usually taken aback. That's where staff can really help."
There are many ways for veterinarians and practice staff to educate their clients regarding the numerous holiday hazards they're likely to face between Halloween and New Year's Day. The most effective technique is to initiate a friendly, inquisitive conversation. This means being observant, asking leading questions ("Will you be putting up a Christmas tree this year?" "What kinds of decorations will you be using?" "Are there any big parties on your calendar?") and reminding clients staff is always available to help with any specific concerns.
"We have clients who have been cat owners for years and have been through several holiday seasons and often several cats," said Angela Martin, CVT, at Cat Care Clinic. "But we also have some new kitten owners who are quite naive about the whole thing and are not thinking at all about potential holiday hazards. They are like first-time parents with new babies, so we try to ask open-ended questions on our pre-examination forms and while talking with them to find out what they know and what they don't."
A growing number of practices have created web sites, informational hand-outs, brochures and seasonal newsletters to educate clients about holiday hazards and other health issues.
Quail Corners Animal Hospital in Raleigh, N. C. puts timely holiday warnings on the appointment reminders mailed to clients, said administrative assistant Rebecca Fultz. Other practices place short safety notices in their on-hold phone messages as a way to educate clients while they wait to talk with a staff member or veterinarian.
Some veterinary practices opt to leave holiday-hazard education to the mainstream press, such as newspapers, magazines and the local television news. But while the press usually does an adequate job of raising pet-safety issues as the holiday season rolls around, practitioners and staff should still take a proactive approach to educating their clients.
"The press is good at putting information out, but pet owners need to be motivated to obtain the information," said Drew Weigner, DVM, owner of The Cat Doctor. "Consequently, veterinarians and especially staff are on the 'front lines' when it comes to education."
One solution is to write a letter to the local newspaper discussing ways to identify and prevent the most common holiday hazards. "Not only does this educate the public, but it provides free publicity for the practice itself," Dr. Hunthausen said. "Newspapers can be a very effective way of reaching out to pet owners."
Of course, education is worthless if it doesn't reach pet owners in time, so it's wise to start well in advance of the holiday season. "I think it's best to bring up the issue of holiday safety even before the client has any questions," Fultz said. "Start talking about Thanksgiving-related hazards such as bones and fatty foods in October, and bring up potential Christmas hazards in November. That way, you'll have the client already thinking about it when the holiday arrives."
Common Holiday Hazards
Here's a quick review of the most common year-end holiday hazards:
- Bones. Small turkey and ham bones can lodge in the throat, stomach and intestinal tract. In addition, fats, gravies and poultry skins can cause severe gastrointestinal problems.
- Holiday plants. Holly, mistletoe, poinsettia and other popular holiday plants can be toxic if eaten.
- Electrical cords. Holiday lights mean more electrical cords for kittens and puppies to chew. Pet owners should make sure all electrical cords are in good condition and out of reach.
- Christmas trees. Poorly secured trees can fall on rambunctious pets.
- Pine needles. Ingested pine needles can puncture an animal's intestines.
- Christmas tree water. Many of the additives used to keep Christmas trees fresh can be toxic if consumed.
- Sweets. Holiday candy — particularly pure chocolate, which contains theobromine — can be hazardous or fatal to pets.
- Alcohol. Unattended alcoholic beverages can be extremely dangerous if consumed by cats and dogs.
- Ornaments. Sharp or breakable ornaments should be kept well out of reach of curious paws.
- Tinsel, yarn and ribbon. Linear foreign bodies can become stuck in an animal's intestinal tract, causing a blockage or perforating the intestinal wall.