Cats and Christmas Trees: A Cautionary Tail
Do you have a feline friend that spends the Holidays with you? It’s such a special thing to share with your pets, but where there is holiday decor there can also be trouble--especially with such curious creatures as cats. We can barely keep Eowyn off the counters and out of the fridge, so we knew we were in for some of her shenanigans come Christmastime. I’ve grown up with cats and know of their fascination with holiday decor. You’re bringing many shiny, stringy, climbable things into the house and you have to consider what your cat could get into.
My friend Amber G. who is a Veterinary Technician helped me come up with this list of tips when it comes to having cats (and pets in general) during this special time of year:
NO TINSEL. PERIOD. This is the cardinal rule of having a cat when you celebrate christmas. Yeah, tinsel is pretty and makes your tree look as though it is glistening with magical icicles from the 50’s and 60’s, but it is more trouble than it is worth. It’s messy, gets everywhere, and could also put your cat’s life at risk. I have heard horror stories of tinsel coming from a cat’s butt like dental floss (DO NOT pull it out). It’s not only gross, but extremely dangerous. Here’s the blunt and honest reality from Amber: “Tinsel can cause an intestinal blockage and literally saw the intestines apart and can result in death.”
Consider the type of tree. We always get a tree with pointy needles because they will help deter Eowyn if she gets poked every time she bats at an ornament. You can always ask the workers at tree lots or farms for advice on what kind of tree to get. Christmas trees are considered to be mildly toxic to pets, so please keep an eye on your cat and make sure they aren’t chewing or nibbling on your tree. The fir sap and oils can irritate the mouth and stomach, and needles can puncture the stomach and GI tract in extreme cases. Most of the time pets do not consume mass quantities of tree material, but it is definitely something to be conscious of. Though not as environmentally friendly as real trees--artificial trees are likely the best option as a choice of tree if you have cats in your home. The needles are flat and do not fall off. You should definitely not let your cat chew on your tree either way. You may want to consider spraying a cat repellent like Nature’s Miracle Scratching Repellent or Bitter Apple on your tree to keep your cat away altogether. Just remember that when you use Bitter Apple, it could rub off on your hands so make sure you also try not to touch the tree too much if you go this route.
Don’t let them drink the tree water. Trees can often be treated with pesticides and other chemicals that could get into the tree water. To avoid any of these chemicals from getting ingested, supervise the tree and try keeping the base covered.
Careful with Christmas lights. String-like material that lights up? You know your cat wants to play with it, and you know very well that they definitely shouldn’t. Chewing on electrical cords can cause electrical burns and shocks in the mouth. Check your cords for any general wear and tear and supervise the tree to make sure your pet isn’t interested in the lighting. Always unplug the tree when you leave the house. In fact, if you have a means to close off the tree while you are gone, that might not be a bad idea. While we are on the subject of lighting, be careful with open flame, whether it is a candle or fireplace. Cats love warmth and flickering lights. Never leave unattended.
Secure or weigh down your tree. Christmas trees can be irresistible for cats who are climbers. Artificial trees tend to be a lighter weight, so consider weighing your tree down so your cat doesn’t climb to the top and take the tree down with them. Amber suggests attaching a plant hanger hook from the ceiling and using a couple strong zip-ties to attach the tree to it (to help stabilize but not have the tree hanging).
Avoid ribbons and yarn when wrapping gifts. This goes back to the no-tinsel rule (do we have a theme?), but for the same reasons wrap your presents without ribbon or use stick-on bows. Although, you might find your cat batting those around the house if you insist storing presents underneath the tree. String-like material can cause an intestinal blockage and literally saw the intestines apart and can result in death.
Placement of Valuable ornaments. The most common behavior I’ve experience and heard of with cats interacting with christmas trees is batting at the ornaments near the bottom. It’s never caused any real harm, but you may want to consider putting the more valuable ornaments near the top and away from kitty. If your cat is extremely adventurous to the point where you constantly have him or her scaling the tree, you may want to consider not hanging any ornaments of value on the tree.
Careful with Poinsettias. Real christmas trees and poinsettias are considered to be mildly toxic for pets. This means that nibbling these plants will cause them to get sick with symptoms such as diarrhea or vomit, but will not kill them. It is a common urban legend to believe that poinsettias are deadly, but it’s a myth that dates back to the early 1900s. Still, don’t let your kitty eat your poinsettias.
“Catify” your home. Jackson Galaxy preaches this practice, but if you haven’t given your cat places where they can just be a cat yet, the Holidays are a great place to start. Get them a cat tree so they hang out there rather than getting into your christmas decor. Get a heated bed or pad for them to take a nap on away from the tree.
Amaryllis, Mistletoe, Lilies and Holly are Deadly. These famous and popular yuletide plants are extremely toxic for pets. To be 100% safe, do not bring these plants into your home. At the very least, make sure they are out-of-reach in your home. Always do your research when bringing plants home as most cats find them irresistible. Check all your plants for any nibbled-upon or eaten leaves and always keep an eye on your cat’s behavior. If you must hang mistletoe above the door and your cat could somehow get to it, consider plastic mistletoe instead.
Distract your kitty with corrective actions and activities. If you see your cat chewing on a christmas tree branch or about to climb, try not to encourage that behavior. Catch them in the act, but then pull out one of their favorite toys and play with them, following up with a treat in the end. Not only is this quality bonding time, but it keeps your kitty away from all of the enticing Christmas things. Have play time with your cat when she isn’t paying attention to your decked halls. Before they even have a chance to think about it, try to have a scheduled play time. It’s important in general, but especially with the holidays. They will know everyday they will get to have fun and have a treat to follow that up. Positive reinforcement is key.
Having guests over for the holidays? Make sure kitty has a “safe” spot that they have food and litter box available, that guests should respect not to go. Some cats are very social, others are not. Even the most social kitty can be shy around new people and noises. It is the responsibility of the pet parent to provide a safe place for their fur-kid. Even if you are not hosting, cats can become anxious with furniture being moved around to accommodate for holiday decorations. Provide a safe room, in which they can unwind. Don’t we all need that after hours with family?
Going away? Try a pet sitter instead of boarding your cat. They will likely be much more comfortable and you will have peace of mind of how your cat is doing while you are away. Ask your veterinarian for suggestions. If your cat must travel with you, and gets nervous for car rides, your vet may be able to suggest medications to help reduce the stress for all involved. This will help to create a more positive experience for you and kitty.
Everyone should be able to enjoy the holidays with their feline family members, but there are some things to be aware of as you bring the decorations up from the basement or attic. It’s good to have a solid understanding of your cat’s specific behavior and anticipate what sort of antics they would get into that would cause for coal to go into their stocking by Santa’s standards. Cat proof your Christmas, be alert, be safe, and contact the Pet Poison Helpline if you know you will be bringing in festive flora and fauna.
If you’re a cat owner, you know how this time of year goes. It’s bittersweet. Have fun with all the Christmas balls you'll find around your house.
~The Girl in the Unicorn Pajamas and Amber G.
P.S. - This commercial covers cat ownership during the holidays in a nutshell.