A Veterinarian’s Tips for the Holidays

“Happy” holidays? Well, maybe. Here are a few tips on how to keep your big-mouth relatives and fastidious friends in the demilitarized zone.

Pet hair and dander can aggravate allergies of your guests. By: AceLain
Pet hair and dander can aggravate allergies of your guests. By: AceLain

With one turkey of a holiday behind us and a few to go, opening your home to your friends and family is far from over.

Even though your pets are part of your home, some of your big-mouth relatives and fastidious friends may think otherwise.

Here are a few tips to keep FiFi and Aunt Monica in the demilitarized zone.

Allergies to Cats

People who are allergic to cats can be mildly to severely affected. How you get your house ready for their visit can make or break the yuletide spirit.

The mildly allergic person may be able to spend several hours at a dinner party in a house with one cat and never tear up once. Waking up to Pywacket on their pillow, however, could make for a red eye morning. Here are some simple tips for your allergic house guests:

Keeping your cats in a separate room may help but does not really solve the problem. Allergens from their saliva are all over your house. Keeping a guest bedroom completely off limits to your cats can help a great deal.

Rugs, carpets, heavy upholstery and plush furniture hold lots of cat allergen. This is where an Ikea house could really come in handy (as long as you never try to move any of that cardboard furniture). Vacuuming, cleaning and dusting in this case is really beneficial. Just think! Maybe your mother, the white-gloved interloper, won’t have so much to criticize. Also, use air filters. They help.

Thinking your cat might like a Christmas spa day? Mouse-infused bubble bath is not necessary, but using distilled water and a cloth on your cat is beneficial. Cat baths are difficult, and there is no evidence to suggest a real bath is more helpful than wiping down the cat with a moist towel twice a week and right before allergic guests come for a visit.

There is a lot of anecdotal information out there about cat allergies, and most of it is hogwash:

  • Tiny amounts of the cat tranquilizer acepromazine diluted in the cat’s food make the cat less allergic. Unproven.
  • Removing the cat’s anal glands make it less allergic. Unproven and rather drastic.
  • Male cats are worse for the allergic person than female cats. Maybe.
  • Neutering and spaying make the cat less allergic. Possibly. True or not true, your cat should be fixed!
  • Burmese cats are less antigenic. Who knows?
  • Feeding an all-meat, no-grain diet helps. Maybe! Since this is a great diet for all cats, why not?

So, damp-mop your cats on your ugly Ikea stick furniture and keep them out of the guest bedroom. Hire the Merry Maids to HEPA vac your entire home. Oh, and have some OTC allergy meds on hand for your guests. They should have their own Nasonex.

Severely allergic people should also be getting allergy injections. This sounds like a lot of work. Maybe they should just visit your sister who hates cats instead of you.

Get That Cat Off the Counter!

Most houses with cats and dogs have the all too common problem of keeping the cat food away from the canines.

I have tried multiple things, but ultimately it’s just easy to take the cat food from the cabinet and put it in the cat dish on the counter. The cats jump up to their side of the counter, and the dogs give up because they just can’t reach.

I used to keep a bowl on top of the fridge. This still meant a leap onto the counter to get to the fridge. Once they jumped on the stove and once I forgot a dirty cat bowl and once they spilled fisherman’s stew down the front of the fridge door. You get the picture.

So the counter it is. My grandmother found this feeding solution disgusting. Was she right? Is it disgusting to have a cat anywhere near your counter?

Is the cat dirty, or is the counter? In my house, probably both. But can we get sick from the cat on the counter, or is this just a social taboo in most kitchens? Although the idea of cat feet treading on kitchen surfaces is a gross-out for some, there’s little to fear in terms of real disease transmission.

There are some diseases people can contract from companion animals. These are called zoonotic diseases. But most of these zoonoses require direct fecal-oral contact if you get what I mean. (Don’t read this around dinner time.)

The most-talked-about disease in this category is toxoplasmosis, carried by cats and infective to humans in cat feces. You cannot contract toxo from your cat, only from 1- or 2-day-old infected feces. Most people get toxo from eating undercooked meat or gardening in dirty soil, not from their cat. Pregnant women and immunosupressed people are at a higher risk of toxo and should not clean litter boxes and should avoid the other risk factors. Toxo is dangerous to the fetus and to people with compromised immune systems.

So the take-home message is that the cat on the counter cannot give you toxo unless your cat has the disease, is actively shedding the disease in their poop, poops on your counter, you leave it there for 2 days and then, well, you come in very direct contact with it.

If you already have what is called a titre to toxo, meaning that earlier in your life you were exposed to the disease and developed an immunity, you cannot contract toxoplasmosis. Pregnant women can be tested to find out whether they are protected against toxo if they feel they are at high risk, such as women who work in animal shelters, veterinary hospitals, etc.

Disease transmission is difficult. By: fletcherjcm

Cats carry other parasites that can be transmitted to people rarely, through the feces — again, that nasty fecal-oral route. Young children are particularly susceptible. Sandboxes infected by outdoor cats, not kitchen counters, are a common source of infection for children.

This in no way exhausts the list of diseases you can contract from your pet, but transmission is difficult. Cat feet on your counter may give your family something to talk about, but it probably won’t make them sick.

If you have the room for a cat feeding station separate from countertops, that’s just grand and your grandmother will think more highly of you. (I am feeding a new rescue with a broken hip in my bed — don’t ask — and my husband keeps kicking the dish. Can’t he remember that Bedbug didn’t finish eating?)

Animal House

So good luck with your sneezing, red-eyed, grossly offended band of visiting relatives! Maybe they’ll step in one hairball too many, and to grandmother’s house they’ll go!

But seriously, I’ve come to understand that mine is an animal house and not for everyone. At one very large Christmas party years back, the house was packed and I served dinner buffet style. A friend was perched in a very busy living room and set her plate down to take a drink and began chatting. Bitsy, my 110-pound redbone coonhound, helped herself to the dinner plate and was wolfing down the gnocchi when a horrified guest screamed out, “Oh my God, get that dog away!” Yes, those scary dog cooties on my dinnerware.

My friend took one look at Bitsy and thought she was so adorable, she held the plate for her so she could finish up. Bitsy lived a long and happy 14 years.

She ate cookies while I put her to sleep the following June because of her inoperable bone tumor. I believe she was dreaming of gorgonzola-drenched gnocchi fed to her by the lovely lady sitting in the light of the Christmas tree.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed Dec. 10, 2014.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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