The 12 Days of Christmas Dangers for Cats
Holiday Pet Safety Hazards
In this post we'll cover:
- The First Day of Christmas - Live Christmas Trees
- The Second Day of Christmas - Artificial Christmas Trees
- The Third Day of Christmas - Tinsel and Ribbon
- The Fourth Day of Christmas - Yummy Food
- The Fifth Day of Christmas - Ornaments
- The Sixth Day of Christmas - Electrical Cords
- The Seventh Day of Christmas - Plants
- The Eight Day of Christmas - Candles
- The Ninth Day of Christmas - Chaos
- The Tenth Day of Christmas - Artificial Snow
- The Eleventh Day of Christmas - Essential Oils
- The Twelfth Day of Christmas - Cocktails
Cats are curious creatures. If something new appears in their environment, it must be explored. During the holidays there’s something new and thrilling, from your cat’s point of view, around every corner. But he’s not waiting for Christmas morning and he doesn’t need to unwrap a thing. His first thought upon spying anything climbable, chewable, paw-able, or edible in your house will be, “You brought that home for me?”
Christmas time should be joyful for every member of your household, but it’s not necessarily a carefree time when there’s a cat in the house. With a little extra knowledge, care, and forethought, however you can easily protect the feline members of your family from what they don’t know will hurt them.
Keep these 12 Days of Christmas Dangers for Cats in mind, as you decorate, cook, and host this holiday season:
The First Day of Christmas – The Live Christmas Tree
Aren’t you just the best cat mommy or daddy? You brought a huge climbing thing into the house, and then you covered it in cat toys! How thoughtful!
There are endless Christmas cat memes that involve a cat pulling a Christmas tree down upon himself, and they’re endless for a reason: cats climb trees, even ones that are indoors, and they regularly take the Christmas tree down with them. A falling tree is a hazard to your cat or to any other pets or people who get in the way of the felling.
Christmas trees harbor other potential dangers. Do you add anything to the water to keep the tree fresh, such as aspirin or fertilizer? Even if you didn’t, the tree water can contain pine resin, preservatives, and fire retardants. To your cat, a tree stand filled with water is nice big water bowl that you filled just for her, but a sip of the water could be toxic.
There are two choices when it comes to Christmas trees: keep the cat away from the tree when you’re not home to supervise, or keep the tree away from the cat. This usually involves locking one or the other behind closed doors.
The Second Day of Christmas – The Artificial Christmas Tree
You’re “out of the woods,” so to speak, if you use an artificial tree, right? Wrong. Unfortunately, most artificial trees are made in China using PVC, a kind of plastic, plus lead, which is used to stabilize the PVC. The lead breaks down into poisonous lead dust over time, which is released into the air.
Some cats are attracted to the fake needles on an artificial tree. If your cat chews or consumes the needles on a manufactured Christmas tree it can cause a serious, life-threatening intestinal blockage.
The Third Day of Christmas – Tinsel and Ribbon
Do you ever play with string with your cat? Does he like it when you dangle a fishing rod toy for him? At Christmastime, he must be thrilled to see you’ve strewn his favorite toys all around, just for him.
Many cats are highly attracted to shiny objects and when that object is also a ribbon or string they feel they’ve hit the jackpot. If you drape your tree with tinsel, or wrap your gifts with elaborate turns of ribbon, or clever bows, you are inviting your cat to play with those items.
Why are ribbon and tinsel so dangerous? Swallowed string-type objects can become linear foreign body obstructions in their digestive tracts. It seems counterintuitive that something as small in diameter and as flexible as string would be become trapped, but it does. A ribbon or strand of tinsel becomes lodged at one end – typically at the base of the tongue for a cat – and then the rest will trail down the GI tract. The intestines bunch up -- it’s just like pulling a string tie around a hoodie -- as they try to move the string through.
With all the movement, the string begins to “saw” at the bunched up folds of intestines, which can cause a life-threatening tear. Intestinal contents can leak from the tear causing a potentially deadly condition called peritonitis.
If you think your cat may have ingested some tinsel this holiday season, look for the signs: vomiting, refusing to eat, and lethargy. His belly may be tender, and he might look uncomfortable or refuse to lie down. If you have any concern about him swallowing tinsel or ribbon, call your vet immediately. This is an emergency that cannot wait.
The Fourth Day of Christmas – Ornaments
Delicate ornaments just call out to be batted by a paw, but they’re not designed with cat safety in mind. Many are fragile and shatter into sharp bits upon falling, and others contain parts and pieces that could be accidentally swallowed. Paints and glitter on ornaments are definitely not cat-safe.
Edible holiday ornaments, like popcorn strings and ornaments made with dough or macaroni, are especially dangerous. They can be highly inviting to some cats and are choking hazards.
Cat owners should most definitely put away the heirloom ornaments, and the delicate glass ones. Place ornaments that are made of wood, cloth, or straw at the bottom of the tree where they will not harm a swatting cat.
The Fifth Day of Christmas – Yummy Food
The cooking turkey smells soooooo good – to you and your cat. And it’s OK to let your cat enjoy a bit of freshly cooked meat for a treat this holiday season. But there will be plenty of goodies on your Christmas table that your cat may also want to sample that may be toxic to her.
You may already know that onions, garlic, chocolate, and grapes are poisonous to cats. But seemingly innocuous foods like gravy or cream can also cause severe distress. Even though we like to imagine a cat enjoying the clichéd saucer of milk, most adult cats are actually lactose intolerant and a bit of whipped cream scooped from the pumpkin pie could cause diarrhea.
High-fat foods like fat trimmings and turkey skin can raise the level of lipids in the blood and cause pancreatitis, a very painful and potentially fatal disease in which enzymes in the pancreas start to consume the organ itself. The high salt content of pan drippings and gravy can also be dangerous for cats with underlying heart conditions.
So stick to little slivers of lean ham or turkey – your cat won’t be disappointed to receive those. And if you think your cat may have consumed something poisonous to her, call one of these pet poison control hotlines immediately:
ASPCA Animal Poison Control: (888) 426-4435
Pet Poison Helpline: (855) 764-7661
The Sixth Day of Christmas – Electrical Cords
It’s just too tempting: it’s a string and it sparkles! At Christmastime, our houses are crisscrossed with all manner of electrical cords and light strings. Cats are weirdly attracted to electrical cords: it’s a fact and a mystery. Some like to play with this string-like material, but others will chew. If you have a cord-chewer, you have to double down on your efforts to keep the cords from cat, as this behavior could lead to burns and electrocution.
Keep cords up and out of the way. Secure dangling cords, or cords that are lying on the floor, just begging to be played with. Run cords through PVC piping, if possible, to keep them completely out of kitty’s reach. If there are cords that cannot be hidden or secured, try smearing them with something unpleasant, like a commercial bitter-apple product, hot sauce, or even Vicks VapoRub.
The Seventh Day of Christmas – Plants
Poinsettias and holly are traditional, mistletoe is fun, and lilies brighten up a cold winter day! We know. But if you have a cat, you may have to satisfy your desire for holiday greenery with silk florals.
You may know that poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), also known as Flower of Christmas Eve, Crown of the Andes, flame leaf flower, and lobster flower, is toxic to cats. That being said, it’s not as poisonous as you might think. A cat who has ingested the milky sap from a poinsettia plant may vomit, drool, or suffer from diarrhea. If the sap gets in your cat’s eyes or on his skin, irritation can develop. Most of these symptoms will resolve on their own. Medical treatment is rarely necessary, and there isn’t an antidote for poinsettia poisoning. Contact your veterinarian or animal poison control (see The Third Day of Christmas, above) if symptoms are severe, however.
The same cannot be said for lilies. If you have a cat, you should never bring lilies into the house. Period. This includes Easter, Tiger, Day and Asiatic lilies most especially, as consumption of only a few leaves, or even a bit of pollen can cause kidney failure and death within hours. There is no antidote for lily poisoning, but immediate veterinary attention is necessary if you think your cat might have been exposed as there are still actions that can be taken to improve your cat’s prognosis. First signs of lily ingestion include vomiting, loss of appetite, lethargy, and dehydration.
There are a few lily species (including Peace lilies and Calla lilies) that will not cause kidney failure if ingested but are still toxic to cats. If you suspect your cat has consumed lilies of any type bring your cat along with the plant to the vet.
The berries of the mistletoe plant (there are two varieties: Phoradendrom serotinum and Viscum album) or holly are more or less toxic depending upon the amount ingested. A small amount will cause drooling, vomiting and stomach pain, but a larger amount can lead to seizures and death.
The Eighth Day of Christmas – Candles
Your cat will seek out warmth wherever she can find it, even the tiny bit of warmth emanating from a decorative candle.
Your cat may get too close for comfort however, resulting in singed whiskers or worse. A playful cat or kitten could knock a lit candle over, causing a house fire.
Keep candles out of reach, and only lit when you can fully supervise.
The Ninth Day of Christmas – Chaos
Houseguests come and go. You play your Christmas tunes too loudly. There’s singing and dancing, and boisterous conversation. On New Year’s Eve there’s fireworks.
What’s fun for you can be torment to a sensitive cat. In the wild, a cat’s heightened senses of smell and hearing, and sensitivity to changes in their environment would have served her well. But in our homes the loud noises and hubbub of the holidays are just stressful – no more and no less.
We humans understand what causes the holiday noises, and often enjoy the comings and goings of friends and family, but cats can’t always make sense of these things and don’t know what will and will not harm them.
Consider creating a “sanctuary” room for a sensitive cat who does not enjoy the ruckus. The room should include a comfortable bed, a litter box, food, and water, or even a white noise machine if you have one. Keep the door closed and instruct guests that the room is off-limits.
Keep in mind that not all stressed cats are comforted by being held or petted. Don’t force your cat to submit to this kind of attention if it doesn’t soothe her.
The Tenth Day of Christmas – Artificial Snow
You want to capture that magical holiday feeling, and there’s nothing like snow to make it feel like Christmas. Many decorators enjoy using artificial snow, also called flocking, to capture that feeling on displays that are indoors.
There are many formulations on the market, so it’s hard to make a blanket (see what I did there?) statement about the safety of artificial snow. Most contain animal fats and various oils that help the fake snow form flakes, chemicals that make it liquid-y enough to spray out of an aerosol can, glues that help it stick to surfaces, and propellants to help it shoot from the can.
None of these things should probably be inhaled or consumed by anyone, least of all an animal that may be a tenth or less of your size. But there is no hard-and-fast agreement about whether fake snow is safe or toxic. There are reports of cats requiring veterinary care after ingesting fake snow. So it’s probably best to err on the side of safety and enjoy the real snow where it belongs: outside.
The Eleventh Day of Christmas – Essential Oils
Oil sprays and diffusers can give our homes the aura of Christmas with their festive scents.
We process inhaled oils in our livers, using an enzyme called glucuronyltransferase. A cat’s liver does not produces this enzyme, however, and the toxicity of essential oils can build up in her system.
Essential oil toxicity in cats includes respiratory distress, vomiting, tremors, drooling, unsteadiness, a low body temperature. Any of these symptoms requires immediate attention by a veterinarian.
Some of the worst-offending essential oils are those we associate most closely with Christmas, including clove, fir, frankincense, peppermint, spearmint, wintergreen, pine, spruce, and cinnamon.
The Twelfth Day of Christmas – Cocktails
If your celebrations include a little toasting with adult beverages, keep your drinks where your cats can’t get to them. Instruct guests to do the same.
Alcohol contains ethanol. Ethanol poisoning can lead to a slowed heart rate, heart attack, seizures, and coma. Three teaspoons of whisky could actually kill a 5-pound cat.
While alcoholic beverages themselves might not appeal to your cat, rich drinks like cream liqueurs and eggnog might pique his interest. But they don’t know what’s good for them – and now you do.
For more information about how to tell if your cat is sick, read this post, "How do you know if your cat is sick?"
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.