How to Cat-Proof Your Christmas Tree to Keep Kitty Safe
Think about it. From your cat's perspective, a Christmas tree may be the best gift ever. Jumping! Climbing! Pawing at ornaments! In other words, it's just not realistic to think that your cat won't try and scamper up the tree and play with the decorations—unless he's elderly, infirm, or overweight. So keep kitty safe by taking some precautions to cat-proof your Christmas tree ahead of the holiday.
What Kind of Christmas Tree Should You Buy?
Live trees: Choose a Christmas tree with pet-friendly, pliable needles, such as a Douglas fir or white pine. Their needles won't stick in your cat's paws. Plus, some cats like to eat stray needles, which can cause choking and seriously upset tummies. Keep your vacuum handy while the tree is up to keep the floor clear of debris.
Artificial trees: Thankfully, fake trees won't dry up and drop needles (or at least not as many!) and their branches will be less tempting for your feline friend to taste. Nix the aluminum tree, though; your cat wouldn't be able to resist its sparkle. And understand you'll still need to cat-proof an artificial tree—because when it comes to kitty finding a high place to perch, fake is as good as real.
Smaller may be better: Imagine your cat's athleticism causing a fully loaded tree to topple. A shorter, lighter specimen is less likely to hurt your cat or to break other objects when it hits the floor (or the coffee table). And you'll spend less time cleaning up the resulting mess if it happens.
Cat-Proofing Your Christmas Tree Stand
Use a solid tree base with enough heft to hold the tree upright. Help the base do its job by securing the tree to the ceiling or wall with fishing line (a.k.a. monofilament). And understand that there's nothing you can pour into the tree stand that will lengthen a fresh Christmas tree's life—aside from fresh water. So leave out "helpful" additives like chicken soup, dog urine (yuck!), or bleach (apparently people have tried adding these gross things to their tree water as a way to extend the life of their tree. Don't do it.). And according to the Independent Veterinary Practitioners Association (IVPA), those packets that come with a tree from the store contains preservatives, fertilizers, pesticides, and other harmful chemicals for cats and dogs.
These additives will make stagnant, bacteria-loaded water even more dangerous for your feline friend to drink. The IVPA recommends covering the tree water to prevent your cat from quenching his thirst and getting sick. Some cat owners even cover the tree skirt with presents to further camouflage that tempting basin of water.
How to Protect Your Cat and Your Christmas Tree Decorations
Both your decorations and your cat's safety may be at risk if he decides to turn those dangling ornaments into a cat toy, or even worse, climb its branches for a better view. Keep your curious kitty on the ground by setting up a barrier around the base of the tree—consider lattice fencing, a Christmas tree gate, or even furniture. And just in case your cat's a jumper, display fragile antique or glass ornaments and tree toppers beyond his reach. Another (safer) spot to show them off could be the fireplace mantel, bookcase shelves, or in a closed, secure cabinet with glass doors.
Place the tree far away from tables or chairs that may provide a spot for him to vault into the air. The IVPA suggests making sure your ornaments and hooks are securely hung high on the branches when decorating your tree. If they should fall or break, your pet can either step on them and cut their paws or could eat the pieces. Hanging them high also keeps the temptation to play with them like toys at bay. Some pet parents even leave the tree's bottom branches bare and start decorating at a level high enough to make their cat lose interest.
Any broken ornaments should be cleaned up right away to keep your pet from stepping on—or ingesting—sharp shards of glass or plastic, says Douglas Kratt, DVM, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Kratt and his wife, Dr. Kimberly Kratt, own Central Animal Hospital in La Crosse, Wis.
"When cats see something shiny dangling from a tree branch, they're going to bat it," Kratt says. "They might even bite into it. They don't know it's going to break. And when they walk across the broken pieces, they don't know they might cut their pads."
And skip the tinsel altogether, says Jerry Klein, DVM and Chief Veterinary Officer for the American Kennel Club (AKC). "They're attracted by the shine," says the vet who spent 35 years working in Chicago's largest veterinary emergency and critical care hospital. "And they'll want to eat it, which will cause indigestion."
Do You Need to Cat-Proof Your Christmas Tree Lights and Battery-Powered Decorations?
Yes! Keep your cat's paws away from wires, electrical cords, and batteries. If chewed, wires and cords can cause a potentially fatal electrical shock. Punctured batteries can leak alkaline or acidic material that will damage your pet's mouth and esophagus. But don't think you have to give up all the cool stuff! You can put your Christmas tree behind a barricade or "plant" it on a tabletop that thwarts your kitty's plans. You may also want to start winding the lights around the tree at a height out of your cat's reach—and push them as far inside the branches as possible—to make them harder for your pet to access.
Protect Your Cat From Toxic Holiday Plants, Too
Though they may look nice throughout your home during the holidays, there are quite a few festive winter plants that are poisonous for cats (and dogs too). Besides pine needles from your Christmas tree, the IVPA says to watch out for poinsettias, mistletoe, and holly berries, all of which can cause mouth irritation, gastric distress, even death for cats. Amaryllis is toxic for cats too. And especially watch out for lilies, which are popular for holidays throughout the year, as these can cause kidney failure and death.
Safer holiday plants for pets to place around the house instead at Christmas time include:
Other Tips to Keep Kitty Out of the Christmas Tree
- Barricade the Christmas tree with baby gates or pet gates. They're lightweight and easy to move. And they can be folded up and stored beneath beds between Christmases.
- Instead of a big tree, hang a small artificial tree upside down from the ceiling beyond the reach of your cat's vertical jump.
- Keep the Christmas tree behind closed doors in the solarium or three-season porch—letting kitty in only when someone is able to supervise.
- Place orange or lemon peels on waterproof dishes below the tree skirt. Many cats will be deterred by the smell.
"And some cats don't like the smell of pine," Kratt says. "There's no perfect solution. So I recommend trying to train your cat to stay away from it altogether. Training goes a long way with cats and Christmas trees."
A version of this article first appeared in Happy Paws Fall/Winter 2019.