With wide eyes and a puffed-up tail, Izzy the gray and white tabby pulled his ears back and made a beeline for the newly decorated Christmas tree. The tree was artificial, but that didn’t stop Izzy from swatting ornaments, sliding out on the tree skirt and trying to chew ribbons on neatly wrapped gifts. Izzy is my cat, and after a lifetime of cat companionship I’ve learned the importance of cat-proofing Christmas trees—or at least trying. Cats and Christmas trees are the subject of thousands of humorous videos online, but it’s not so funny when it’s your own tree getting knocked over—or your own cat injuring themselves.
My trees have gotten increasingly safer over the years, and with a few adjustments, any cat parent can still enjoy this festive decoration while keeping their cat and Christmas tree safe. A little prevention, forethought and understanding why cats find Christmas trees so irresistible can go a long way in heading off disaster .
Why Cats Love Christmas Trees
The first step in learning how to keep your cat out of your Christmas tree is understanding why they’re drawn to it in the first place. Cats are creatures of habit and they’re also territorial, says Cristin Coll, CFTBS (Certified Feline Training and Behavior Specialist), CAFTP (Certified Advanced Feline Training Professional), owner of The Cat Counselor in Santa Monica, California, so anything new—such as a Christmas tree—will become the object of their curiosity.
“Most cats are very curious about Christmas trees and see them as an exciting new opportunity,” Coll explains. “Christmas trees are tall, present lots of climbing, hiding and scratching spaces and are incredibly enticing to our feline friends.”
They also appeal to cats’ innate instincts that date back before they were domesticated.
“Before cats began cohabitating with humans, climbing trees provided a place for them to seek out their next meal and to watch over their territory,” Coll says. “As one of the few animals that are both predator and prey, being in high places like trees also provides them with a sense of safety, security and control. Cats love to feel like they are in control!”
In addition to safety concerns, there’s another instinct-driven reason to use caution around cats and Christmas trees. One of the more unpleasant—and not at all funny—risks of bringing a Christmas tree into the home is the potential of marking.
“Marking is a means of feline communication and takes on a few different forms—scratching, rubbing, urine spraying and even depositing feces, which is maddening,” Coll says. “While marking is generally considered to be an ‘undesired’ behavior to cat parents, it is a completely normal cat behavior.
“In the wild, marking objects (like a tree), helps in things like establishing territories and seeking out mates,” she continues. “The most common reasons that housecats mark include territorial insecurity, outdoor cats/animals, stress/anxiety and new items/object with unfamiliar scents. A Christmas tree would most likely fall into the category of being targeted due to unfamiliar smells.”
Though marking is a common cat reaction to the introduction of a tree into the home, pet parents should keep a watchful eye out in case there is an underlying medical issue.
“If the marking continues or you see blood in the urine, it’s time for a visit to the veterinarian,” says David Dilmore, DVM, a veterinarian at Banfield Pet Hospital in the Denver, Colorado, area. “In some cases, this may be caused by an underlying medical issue that needs to be treated. If you pet is straining but unable to urinate, take them to see a veterinarian immediately, as this is an emergency medical issue that requires immediate treatment.”
How to Cat-Proof Your Christmas Tree
You can’t change your cat’s instincts, but you can put safety measures in place to ensure their love affair with the Fir by the fireplace doesn’t end in tragedy. Follow these expert tips to keep your cat and Christmas tree safe this holiday season.
Anchor Your Tree
Cats’ climbing instinct works well for them in the wild, where trees are firmly planted in the ground. The tree in your living room, on the other hand, is far easier to bring down.
“If you have a tree-climbing feline, your Christmas tree may topple, so make sure your tree is well secured to the ceiling or a wall,” Dr. Dilmore says.
Coll agrees, and adds, “Be sure to have a heavy and sturdy base for the tree. You can also place small eye bolts in the wall or ceiling around the tree and fasten the tree with clear fishing line. It’s an almost invisible fix to help keep your tree standing and your cat safe!”
Coll also recommends placing the tree away from any place that your cat already likes to climb or perch on—cat trees, counters, shelves, etc.
Avoid Glass and Sharp Objects
Climbing isn’t the only hazard Christmas trees present to curious kitties. Dangling ornaments can become potential playthings in the eyes of cats.
“Kittens are especially curious about new things in their environment, making your holiday decorations prime candidates for swatting, chewing and general mishaps,” Dr. Dilmore says. “Keep an eye out for glass ornaments and ornament hooks, both of which can cause puncture wounds and serious injury to probing pets.”
Cover Electric Cords
“Electric cords connected to holiday lights are a tempting chew-toy for any kitten,” Dr. Dilmore says.
And it doesn’t take much imagination to understand that chewing a live wire can be dangerous for your favorite feline.
“Be sure to secure and cover them to prevent shocks or burns, as well as the potential for falling lighted objects that could cause injury,” Dr. Dilmore advises.
Block Off the Tree Water
Cats enjoy a refreshing drink of water just like anyone else—but that’s a problem if the water’s coming from the basin beneath your Christmas tree, Dr. Dilmore says.
“If you have a live Christmas tree, make sure your cat can’t get to the water bowl underneath,” he says. “Some of the chemicals added to it to help the tree stay green can actually be toxic to pets and make them sick.”
Luckily, there are several ways to prevent your cat from drinking the tree water.
“Getting a covered base, or covering the base with a cover, some tin foil or even a tree skirt can prevent a cat from getting into the water,” Coll says.
And there’s always the option of decorating with a tree that needs no water at all: “If your cat has been known to chew or eat things they’re not supposed to, I would highly recommend going with an artificial tree,” Coll says.
If blocking your cat’s access to the Christmas tree water is impossible, Dr. Dilmore advises, “use fresh, clean water with no preservatives or chemical additives—and change it daily.”
Keep Dangerous Chewables Out of Reach
Chewing and tasting are instincts cats use to explore their environment. To them, gifts, boxes, ribbons and tinsel are not only a game waiting to happen, they’re new to the environment and chewing on them is a way to check them out. But they’re also highly dangerous, says Coll, who advises cat parents to avoid tinsel altogether and keep gifts in a safe place until it’s time to open them as a precaution.
“If swallowed, ribbon can cause serious issues, including blockage and perforation of the intestinal track,” Coll says.
Even the tree itself could present an issue, Dr. Dilmore says. Whether the tree is real or artificial, swallowing the needles can cause intestinal blockages.
“Also, avoid putting gifts under the tree that contain food,” he adds. “Cats have a keen sense of smell and can hunt out food not meant for them, even through decorative wrapping and packaging.”
Separate Your Cat From the Tree
One way to keep your cat safe from your Christmas tree is to remove their access to it, Dr. Dilmore says.
“It’s best to limit your cat’s access to the Christmas tree if they’re a climber,” he explains.
But how do you keep your cat out of your Christmas tree when they’re drawn to it by instinct?
“[Try] keeping them out of the room where it’s located, using a barrier in front of it, or try spraying your tree with a repellant approved by your veterinarian,” he suggests.
A barrier like Primetime Petz 360 Configurable Gate with Door, which comes in heights up to three feet tall, can help keep your feline friend away from the tree. And a number of remedies can also separate cats from Christmas trees, including sprays with unpleasant odors to cats, such as bitter apple, citronella, citrus and menthol, Coll says. TropiClean Stay Away Chew Deterrent, for example, is designed to train cats and dogs to stay away from places they’re not allowed, like on top of the sofa, near a poisonous plant and, yes, under the Christmas tree.
She adds that many cats also have aversions to certain textures, like foil or vinyl carpet runners, so they may make ideal barriers between the cat and the tree.
Keep a Normal Routine
Helping cats feel secure during times of stress and change, like the holidays, can help curb problem behavior, Dr. Dilmore says. Extra guests and different house decorations can stress some cats out, leading to more elusive or even aggressive attitudes.
Dr. Dilmore suggests sticking to your regular routine to help keep cats at ease.
“Feed and play with your cat at the usual times,” Dr. Dilmore says. “They will appreciate staying on their regular schedule.”
He also recommends creating a place where cats can feel safe if they become overwhelmed.
“Give your cat an area of the house such as a bedroom where he or she can go to be alone and get away from the commotion,” he says. “Make sure there is food, water and a litter box in this quiet area.”
Understanding your own feline’s instincts and proclivities can go a long way in preventing a disastrous cat-Christmas tree mishap. When you celebrate the holidays with safety in mind, every member of the family can enjoy the festive fun of the season.