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Ask a Vet: The Top 7 Holiday Health Hazards for Cats

Unstable Christmas trees, tinsel, fireplace ashes, holiday parties and more — one vet sounds off on the top holiday health hazards for cats.

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Dec 5th 2017


If you’re in the process of ramping up for a holiday celebration, then prepare for your mood to be spoiled over this cat-health matter. On the other hand, if you are feeling more Scroogey than holiday-spirited, I am happy to provide you with some ammunition: holiday health hazards for cats… that can be avoided. That’s right — Dr. Doom-and-Gloom Barchas is here to ruin yet another holiday by harping on how dangerous it is for your pet! Here are some tips.

In truth, this article might not scare you too much. I am happy (honestly!) to say that cats, with their high levels of prudence, do not have a super-special knack for getting into trouble during the winter holidays. The overwhelming majority of cats get through them unscathed.

There are, however, some exceptions. Here are a few holiday health hazards for cats you should be aware of and avoid!

1. Cats and Christmas trees

Tinsel and ribbons are very dangerous if cats eat them.

Tinsel and ribbons are very dangerous if cats eat them. Cat and Christmas ornaments. Photography by Tibanna79 / Shutterstock.

Believe it or not, in my experience this is the most common cause of unwanted veterinary visits for cats during the holidays. Christmas trees are remarkably attractive to some cats, and they simply aren’t as stable as real trees with roots.

Cats who climb Christmas trees predictably (at least to the humans involved in these situations) bring the trees down. This results in a mess in the best cases, but I have seen more than a few sprains and strains and a couple of broken legs resulting from tree takedowns.

The solution is simple, but imperfect: Don’t allow your cat to have access to the tree when you’re not supervising. (Though I know that plenty of cats still manage to climb and knock over trees when their owners are in the room.)

2. Cats and holiday decorations

The ornaments and decorations adorning the trees also pose a risk. Tinsel is attractive to some cats. When your cat eats tinsel or any other string, it poses a risk of causing a problem called “linear foreign body obstruction.” Other decorations also may be swallowed, leading to intestinal obstruction. I will never forget the day I surgically removed a jingle bell from a cat’s intestine. Chewing on strings of Christmas lights poses a theoretical electrocution risk, although I can’t say I’ve ever seen it happen. Mistletoe and holly are famously toxic. However, it turns out that poinsettia toxicity is largely an urban legend — the plant is only mildly toxic (although cats should still not be allowed near it).

3. Wrapping presents with cats

The presents underneath the tree probably won’t be especially dangerous to your cat, but the wrapping might be. In particular, ribbons and bows may be long and thread-like, making them attractive to some cats. Voila! Another potential linear-foreign-body-obstruction hazard.

4. Christmas tree water isn’t exactly safe for cats, either

Before we move away from the tree, let’s talk about the dish of water in which it sits. Cats love to drink from this dish, because they love to drink water from any source that disturbs humans. Is this water dangerous? I don’t think so, and I’ve never seen an adverse reaction to it. However, I sure have to deal with a lot of calls from freaked-out owners about the matter, and I also can’t guarantee that Christmas-tree water is safe, especially if it has been chemically treated. The solution: Buy a fake tree.

5. Fireplace ashes are harmful to cats

As that yule log burns out, it turns into nice fluffy ashes. I have never seen a cat come to harm from playing in cold fireplace ashes. However, you would not believe what a godawful mess a cat can make of himself and the house if he digs around in there. Also, ashes do not clump in the presence of cat urine, so the fireplace makes a bad litter box. You’ve been warned.

6. Holiday parties mean stranger-danger for cats

Mix lots of brandy-laden eggnog with a bunch of loud strangers in the house who aren’t cat-savvy, and you’ve got a recipe for your cat to escape and get lost during your holiday party. Bear this in mind when planning festivities, and set aside a safe room for the cat.

7. Humiliating costumes

Veterinary science has yet to determine whether cats can actually die of embarrassment. However, I have seen several costumed cats who looked as if they wanted to. Sure, they make cute elves, and who doesn’t love a cat with a Santa hat? But please, think of your poor cat’s dignity (and consider the potential for karmic retribution) before you subject them to this degradation.

Happy holidays to all!

Thumbnail: Photography ©JasonOndreicka | Thinkstock.

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