Snow Globes and Other Christmas Dangers


I suppose there might be a deeper meaning to snow globes than just pure enjoyment. But me, I don’t really care to go deeper. I am entranced by the swirling snow and glitter that light so many pretty scenes. Scenes of trees and mountain tops, families, Nutcracker stories, elf and Santa stories, Nativity scenes. I am open to all of them at this time of year. I give ‘em a swirl whether they play music or not. The snow never drifts long enough.


So I was a little indignant when I first heard that snow globes might be dangerous to pets. What old Grinch was picking on my snow globe love? There was truth to the story, sad to say. It seems that some snow globes are filled not only with water, but with ethylene glycol – good old-fashioned antifreeze. Antifreeze is used in cars. It serves to cool the radiator and is also found in brake fluid, motor oil and many de-icing products.


ETHylene glycol (EG) antifreeze is sweet to taste and attractive to both cats and dogs. Antifreeze produced after 2012 is supposed to have a bitter taste added to it. All ethylene glycol antifreeze has a greenish color. This antifreeze kills. A different antifreeze product made with PROPylene glycol is unlikely to poison a pet and is orange-pink in color.


As little as 5 ml’s or 1 teaspoon can kill a cat or small dog. They lick the sweet antifreeze up and within the hour may begin to show side effects of vomiting, seizuring and staggering. This first stage of poisoning progresses rapidly over the next 12-72 hours to the third stage, where odd crystals of calcium oxalate settle in the kidneys. Kidney failure is quick to follow. At this stage there is no reversal. The affected pet dies.


Should you see your pet licking up a puddle of green antifreeze spilled from your car’s leaking radiator, take your pet to your veterinarian immediately. Ethanol, which is the same alcohol used in cocktails, is the antidote to antifreeze poisoning. Straight vodka will do. I know, I have given it intravenously in an emergency and the dog lived. Strange but true.


So why on earth is this stuff in snow globes? The snow globe is reputed to have originated in France (late 1800’s) or in Vienna, Austria in the early 1900’s. Many people were still using candles for light, and one clever method used by shoemakers to create a larger spotlight involved placing a large round vase (globe) filled with water in front of a candle flame, so that the reflective light on the other side was enlarged to the size of a person’s hand. The electric light bulb had been invented but would remain under intense development for improvements over the next 100 plus years. The early electric bulbs weren’t very bright. A Mr. Erwin Perzy in Austria tried the same candle-maker’s trick for brighter spotlights by placing globes of water in front of electric bulbs, but to no avail. So he added something to make the water more dense, hoping to reflect the light from the bulb better. He tried semolina flaked baby food. The effect reminded him of falling snow……….he added a picture diorama, and the modern snow globe was born.


Water-only filled globes weren’t very satisfactory as the swirling flakes just dropped to the bottom.  After many trials, it was found that adding water mixed with glycol made the “snow” fall more slowly, prolonging the effect. Because a 50:50 mixture of water and ethylene glycol doesn’t freeze easily (negative 35 degrees Fahrenheit!), it had the added benefit of keeping snow globes stable both when shipping and selling them in colder climes. As long as the snow globe remains intact the addition of antifreeze is a good thing.


Beware if you and your family dog rent a cabin in very cold regions – antifreeze is sometimes added to the toilet water to keep it from freezing. Don’t let your dog drink from the toilet! And do not, under any circumstances, leave a broken snow globe for clean-up later! Hold larger globes over the couch to make it snow. And let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.


Christine B. McFadden, DVM



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