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Cat vs. Christmas Tree
Credit: Jennifer C. on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Take Stock Before You Deck the Halls

When I was a kid, our Christmas tree had so much lametta (stringy silver tinsel) on it, you could barely see the green branches underneath. Thankfully, times have changed and the FDA determined that lead tinsel posed "an unnecessary risk to children." After January 1972, most manufacturers stopped making it. But that didn't stop people from using it year after year. Due to a lack of evidence, the FDA could not ban its use.

Cat and Christmas treeOrangeaurochs on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericI remember our cat, Mittens, chewing on it, though. And as you guessed, stringy tinsel is dangerous for pets to ingest too.

Even though the majority of tinsel sold today contains no lead, the risk of it becoming wrapped around or anchored inside the digestive tract can cause it to slowly saw through tissue during peristalsis. (Peristalsis is simply the rhythmic smooth muscle contractions which moves food along in the digestive tract).

Mittens also batted tree ornaments around (some were breakable) and if presents weren't hidden, she'd rip right into them. The tree itself made an excellent natural scratching post. And one year, she was able to knock it right over. Thankfully, Mittens was never injured.

I'm sure some of you have similar stories. 

An unfortunate outcome is when a pet becomes ill or injured. Sadly, last week I read a CBC news report about a kitten that died after eating Christmas tree needles. The family was told by their veterinarian that the cause of death was poisoning from ethylene glycol which is extremely toxic to cats, dogs, humans, and wildlife.

I was alarmed to learn that absorption of ethylene glycol through the skin via topical products has even caused toxicity in cats.

Keep It Out of Reach or Get Rid of It

Meow! Cat in a christmas treeNina Hale on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericAfter my daughter was born, I decided to anchor a 4-foot artificial tree on top of a 4-foot heavy speaker from an old stereo system in the corner of our living room. That way, my daughter or the cats could not get at the tree.

Another option is to keep your tree in a room that can be closed off to pets. That way, you can supervise them whenever they are around the tree.

Another tricky dilemma is when you are given (or your child creates) an edible ornament of some kind. You must put it on the tree (or else you'll look like a jerk), so you choose a spot way up near the top.

At first you might think your cat(s) won't bother trying to get at it. But just you wait, some of them will climb all the way up to have a good sniff, bite, or to take a bat at it.

Climbing a tree to get at a food source is pretty much what cats (and other pets) are wired to do.

Are Real Trees Worse?

Christmas 2011 031Trix and friends (trix_smith on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericThat depends. Both artificial and real trees can pose hazards.

But here's something to keep in mind: a real tree will need to have water. Tree water might become laden with perticides, fertilizers, preservatives, flame retardants and/or other chemical agents.

Sometimes aspirin is used in tree (or plant) water to keep it fresh. All of these are toxic to animals (and children) who might try to drink it. So, if you wish to have a real tree, be sure the tree water is securely covered.

Pine needles, whether real or fake, can cause your pet mouth and stomach irritation. Similarly, those wire hooks used to hang ornaments can become embedded in your pet. Breakable ornaments can cut a pet's paws (or humans) too. 

Holiday Hazards to Avoid

The sources I used for this list include: Toronto Cat Rescue, ASPCA: Holiday Safety Tips, BC SPCA: Holiday Safety Tips, and Marty Smith, DVM of Drs. Foster & Smith Inc.

Curly ribbons strands are dangerous for the same reason tinsel is. These can become lodged in the intestinal tract. Using cloth ribbon and bows are a safe alternative.

Holly (leaves and berries), lilies (all parts), mistletoe, Christmas rose, hibiscus, and ornamental pepper are dangerous for cats and other pets. The BC SPCA states:

Airline Passenger Therapy Dogs - Salt Lake City International AirportHammerin Man (effjohn on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic"Poinsettias are not poisonous to pets or people. This has been a long-standing rumour perpetuated for decades. Having said this, some pets, that have a sensitivity to the latex contained in the plant, may get diarrhea or even vomit if they consume a poinsettia."

Dr. Marty Smith noted, "Poinsettias have an irritating sap that can cause blistering in the mouth and stomach upset."

Fake snow is toxic. As mentioned earlier, the kitten who died after eating tree needles, was found to have ingested ethylene glycol. It was found in the list of ingredients of the chemical that was sprayed on the tree. Initially, the store purportedly told the pet owner that the trees were sprayed with "a hypoallergenic pet-friendly substance akin to house paint." 

Potpourri has oils in it which are toxic to cats and other pets. Colognes, perfumes, and aftershave lotions often contain ethanol (alcohol) and/or oils which are harmful to pets.

Stripehead tangled up in some cables on ChristmasPatrick Morris (iliekcake on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericBe wary of electrical cords and use pet-proof extension cords. You can also spray electric cords with a vet-approved product such as Bitter Apple or Chew Stop.

In my article Important Halloween Safety Tips from Veterinarians, I delved deeper into the types of chocolate and treats (especially those with xylitol) that are harmful for pets.

Another overlooked danger is turkey or poultry bones that cats, dogs, or other animals in your home might chew on. And those meat-soaked butcher strings found around roasts or for trussing poultry are especially tempting (and dangerous) for pets. 

I sometimes see fruit baskets with grapes or nut trays with raisins (or worse, chocolate-covered raisins) set out for guests. According to Dr. Marty Smith, "Grapes and raisins contain an unknown toxin, which can damage the kidneys."

Buddy drinking my milk  I set it down for ten seconds...Pat Hawks on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericI never thought of this one: don't leave half-empty cocktail glasses about, cats are often drawn to sweet drinks and especially eggnog. I can never drink a whole cup of the stuff myself.

One of my tips is to be mindful of scented markers or glues with glitter. While these may state they are non-toxic, pets are attracted to them and might ingest something unhealthy or dangerous they are applied to.

Of course the no-brainer hazards include: lit or unattended candles, hot lighting sources, garland on staircases that can easily become choking hazards and any gift left out for a pet that contains catnip or other pet treats. Fortunately, there are flameless candles and LED lights which never get hot available on the market. I'm sure all pet owners realize that any gifts containing a food source or something that smells enticing shouldn't be left out unattended.

In Summary

Christmas AnticipationDavid J Laporte (footloosiety on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericThe holidays can be an extremely stressful time for your pet(s).

Depending on the number of visitors to your home, it's probably wise to have a safe room or retreat for your four-legged friends.

If you will be putting up a Christmas tree, look for a room that can be completely sealed off to pets. I'd rather set up a tree in a basement rec room than on a main floor for safety reasons.

As you pull out and put up decorations, assess their danger potential. Placing things high up might help, but remember, some pets will stop at nothing.

Lastly, don't be too concerned about gifting your pet with new food or treats. A change of diet can upset their digestive system.

Time spent with you or playing with a toy is probably all he or she really wants for Christmas anyways.

Thank you for reading and sharing my article. I wish you and yours and all pets a safe and happy holiday season. 

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