‘A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than you love yourself,” penned 19th-century humorist Josh Billings.

And Charles Dickens wrote, “What greater gift than the love of a cat?”

It appears we Americans crave that love from these four-legged companions. So much so, that in a recent national survey by the American Pet Products Association, 68 percent of U.S. households said they own a pet which includes some 94 million cats and 90 million dogs.

That’s a lot of wet noses to keep happy, healthy and safe. Especially now, during the holiday season. Unfortunately, that’s when there’s also a spike in emergency trips to the vet. Whether or not you’re a pet owner, their safety starts with you.

“Dogs eat first and think later,” explains Dr. Erin Ramsdell at the Veterinary Emergency Clinic in Port Charlotte. The majority of those ER visits are because animals get things in their mouth that they shouldn’t.

“During the holidays, when our own diets tend toward extra-rich foods, table scraps can be especially hard for animals to digest and can cause pancreatitis,” warns the American Veterinary Medical Association.

For dogs, Ramsdell explains it’s usually foods high in fat or sugar. Chocolate is especially toxic. Or rummaging through the garbage and chomping on the turkey carcass where bones can splinter and create bowel obstructions.

For cats, it’s normally “anything stringy,” says Ramsdell. Eating tinsel, for example, may cause intestinal blockage often requiring surgery. With live trees, keep the area clear of pine needles, which could puncture intestines if ingested.

Also, PetMD (www.petMD.com) warns that holly, mistletoe, and poinsettia plants are poisonous to dogs and cats, and should be kept in areas they can’t reach.

For poison concerns, call the ASPCA’s 24-hour animal poison control hotline at 888-426-4435. “Signs of pet distress include sudden changes in behavior, depression, pain, vomiting, or diarrhea,” explains the AMVA.

And with holiday guests coming and going, an open door can be very inviting. And dangerous. Ramsdell has had injured pets brought in after running out of the house.

If you’re planning on entertaining, the AVMA recommends having a safe place for your pet, like a kennel or crate, or in another room with toys and a comfortable bed.

If there’s a pet medical emergency, and you can’t reach your veterinarian, this area’s only after-hours emergency facility is the Veterinary Emergency Clinic, 17829 Murdock Circle in Port Charlotte (www.veterinaryemergencyclinic.com), located in the out-parcel across from Sears Auto Center.

Clinic hours are daily from 5 p.m. until 8 a.m. the next morning, 24 hours on the weekend, and all holidays, including Christmas day. If possible, call 941-255–5222 to alert them you’re coming. Keep this and your vet’s phone number in your cell phone and conspicuously posted in the house.

Finally, think twice before purchasing a pet as a Christmas gift, especially online.

“At least 80 percent of the sponsored advertising links in an internet search for pets may be fraudulent,” warns the Better Business Bureau. “In the typical scam, thieves impersonate pet sellers and instruct potential buyers to make upfront payments for shipping, insurance, and other fees associated with transporting the animals. In most cases, buyers never receive the pets, and lose their money.”

Rather, think about adopting a shelter pet.

“But don’t make it an impulse decision,” cautions Karen Slomba, executive director of the Animal Welfare League in Port Charlotte. “You’re making a commitment for the rest of the animal’s life.”

Not sure? Slomba says consider opening your heart and home during this giving time of the year and temporarily foster a shelter cat or dog. Choose any period between Dec. 21 and Jan.2. There’s no cost. Who knows? You may fall in love. For more information, call AWL at 941-625-6720.

David Morris is the Sun’s consumer (and pet) advocate. Contact him c/o the Sun, 23170 Harborview Road, Charlotte Harbor, FL 33980; email dmorris@sun-herald.com; or leave a message at 941-206-1114.

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