When I was a child, I pulled a full length piece of tinsel out of the butt of my cat, Mr. Whiskers. The removal of this digested decoration seemed to be as surprising, humorous, and unsettling to Mr. Whiskers as it was for me. After that incident, our family Christmas trees only had tinsel starting a third of the way up the tree – if it had any at all. And now that my first Christmas with my own two fuzzy friends, Dude and Snuggles rapidly approaches, celebrating in a kitty-safe way is increasingly prominent in my thoughts.
For pets, their whole world is turned upside-down during this time of year. Furniture is re-arranged, strange plants appear, there’s increased activity, different people coming in and out… so much opportunity to get into trouble. And what’s dangerous and what’s safe is not always intuitive. For instance, in researching for this post, I was shocked to find out poinsettias are not the deadly feline toxin I had always heard. But the same can’t be said for some other holiday greenery, like mistletoe and holly. You can avoid live decorations all together, but some cats attack and devour the fake stuff with even more enthusiasm. And then there’s all kinds of plastic, glass, and wire all over the place this time of year. So what’s bad, what’s not, and what can you do about it?
Live Christmas trees are mildly poisonous to kitties, but fake ones aren’t exactly health food. They both contain substances that can be poisonous to pets, but toxicity isn’t the largest threat with real or fake needles — the worst case scenario involves gastrointestinal obstruction. My cats were ecstatic when we brought a live tree up on the porch, and when it came inside, they were beside themselves. Right away the chewing began, and I was worried. I can’t be there all the time to yell at them. It wasn’t long before Snugs picked up a needle and ate it. I couldn’t get to him in time to stop him. But you know what? After that, I haven’t seen him even think about eating a needle. Perhaps it was too sharp, or not tasty, or gave him an upset tummy. My hope is that taught him not to eat pine needles.
The water for the tree can be even worse. Common Christmas tree preservatives (the stuff you put into the water for a live, cut tree) can be HIGHLY poisonous (and if you know your Mythbusters, you’re best just using water anyway). But even if you use plain water, it’s still not very good for pets to drink the sappy sludge in a tree stand. Your pet’s access to this water can be limited by the stand you choose. Some people find spraying strong perfume around the base of the tree keeps cats away. What I did this year to try to discourage tree-water-drinking was have the lower branches just about touch the top of the stand. The dense pine branches act like a cage over the water. This makes it a pain to refill the water, but also makes it a pain for the cats to drink the water. It’s worked – so far…
As for the decorations on the tree, that’s just reflex to me. Last year when I had no kitties, I still hung the more durable ornaments down low and the breakable ones higher. It’s just habit. In Simon’s Cat video, you can see Simon did the same with the metal bell at the bottom. This can be a Catch-22 scenario, though. If your cat climbs the tree and knocks ornaments off, they’re more likely to break from that height. But all-in-all, this technique has served me well. I fully expected Dude to be up the tree in about 5 minutes, but I’ve seen no evidence of that so far. Maybe the branches are too dense, but more likely is that he just hasn’t thought of it yet.
Tinsel: shiny, stringy, wiggly, and even squeaky when tugged on. It’s practically a cat lure! As I said before, it was usually relegated to the top two thirds of the tree in my youth, but ultimately it was eliminated all together. That’s the safest way to go, and I’ve come to like the look of a tree better without tinsel, so I don’t mind at all. And there’s the various ribbons that go on packages and decorations of all ilk. You can hang decorations high to keep them out of reach, and packages can be locked up until they’re ready to be opened. You can decorate under your tree with more pet-safe items, or just have the branches so low there’s no room. If it’s only ribbon that’s the temptation, some holiday wrapping paper is shiny or fancy enough it doesn’t need dressed up with bows.
I’ve read many warnings about power cords, but isn’t that an everyday danger to cats? I suppose if measures need to be taken on a day-to-day basis to protect your feline from its appetite for 110 current, then adding strings of lights all over the house multiplies the temptation and the danger. Though wall current can be fatal to a cat chewing on a wire, often it’ll just give them a little zap. But holiday decorations add another hazard. When I brought a garland with multicolored twinkle lights down from the attic, Snugs immediately wrapped his furry little lips around one of the lights. I stopped him before he bit down, and back up the garland went. The thought of tiny shards of thin, shattered glass in a cat’s mouth sounds like the makings of a terrible Christmas Eve. Hopefully the big C7 bulbs for the tree will look less like tasty jelly beans to him. But I guess if they really wanted to, a cat could chomp down on one of them.
Keep an eye on your pet for signs of mouth pain. If your cat isn’t eating as much, chewing funny, or isn’t playing with usual toys, check its mouth for either burns from electricity or cuts from glass. But what if this is a problem for your pet? Well, personally if the C7’s still prove too tempting for Snugs, maybe I’ll go get some LED lights. They’re low voltage and many are just tiny, solid nubs of durable plastic. That sounds a lot more pet-friendly to me.
There are a lot of things to watch out for during the holiday season, but any long-time cat owner will tell you, nothing is ever completely kitty-proof. You do what you can to reduce risk, but cats will always find a way to get into trouble. So no matter what preventative measures you’ve taken, you have to keep your eyes open for your little fuzzy buddies! With a little thought, effort, and a watchful eye, you can keep your pets safe and still have a festive holiday.
For further information on keeping your pets safe, check out: