We brighten our homes for the holidays with boughs of holly, strings of lights and inflatable snowmen. We might skip the ruby-red or white poinsettias, knowing they can be toxic to pets. Oddly enough, according to Dr. Megan Rector, these traditional holiday flowers don't pose the most danger to dogs and cats. "Although they contain a milky sap that can irritate your pet's mouth, the effects are usually mild," says Rector, an emergency veterinarian at VRCC Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Hospital in Englewood, CO. Pet owners should be aware of five other toxic dangers that pose health and safety threats to their cat or dog this holiday season.

  1. Decorations: Many ordinary decorations like tinsel, glass ornaments, spray on snow/flocking, foil, plastic wrap/shrink-wrap, Styrofoam peanuts and ribbon can be life-threatening if eaten by your pet. Whether lodged in the esophagus, stomach or intestines, any one of these can cause a variety of maladies and may land your pet in the operating room.

  2. Mistletoe: Both the plant and the berries are extremely toxic to pets. The most severe cases can cause low blood pressure, stumbling and even seizures.

  3. Christmas Tree Food/Preservatives: If you have a live tree, guard against your dog or cat using the tree stand as a drinking bowl. According to Rector, the sugar-based tree preservatives and tree food/water can harbor dangerous bacteria.

  4. Batteries: New toys need fresh batteries, but chewing or swallowing batteries is extremely toxic for pets. Be sure to keep all batteries out of the reach of your pets. Acid burns from chewing and causing a leak in the battery are common, as well as cuts from the metal casing. A curious pet can easily gulp down AAA and other smaller-size batteries, causing internal burns and requiring surgery to remove them.

  5. Potpourri: The spicy scents of warming potpourri fill the house, but for a pet, if exposed to the liquid form, the fluid can be the cause of irritation and corrosion of the eyes, mouth, throat and esophagus.

Unless your pet vomits up tinsel or an ornament, it's often difficult to know quickly if your dog or cat has ingested any of these holiday festoons. "Monitoring your pet for vomiting, diarrhea, or evidence of things in the house getting destroyed or disturbed can provide clues," says Dr. Rector. "Most symptoms will be gastrointestinal-related, but also watch for your pet not eating, being lethargic or unusually inactive."

The best way to avoid your pet getting sick is to prevent access to tinsel, string or other small objects and toxic plants like liquid potpourri that could be ingested. "Also don't feed your pet any of the festive foods made during the holiday season," she adds. "High fatty foods, meat attached to bones, chocolate and nuts have the potential to cause severe illness in animals."

Freelance writer Claire Yezbak Fadden is taking special care that her dogs, Bandit and Jersey Girl, won't be affected by any holiday hazards. Follow her on Twitter @claireflaire.