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A Vet’s Tips on Preventing 7 Holiday Catastrophes

The holidays bring several potential household hazards; here is how to keep your home cat-safe.

Dr. Marty Becker  |  Dec 16th 2015


Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Holiday 2015 issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.

I’m 60 years old, and I have loved the holiday season since I was a kid growing up on the farm in rural southern Idaho. Holidays meant time off from school, the gathering of far-flung family members, presents, and sumptuous meals. I’m also a 35-year veterinarian, and in this role the holidays can be a time to worry about all the cats who can become ill or injured — many of these maladies being preventable.

There is a dramatic increase in the number of lost pets from mid-November through mid-January. That’s because this time of year lots of people come in and go out the front door. If you haven’t microchipped your cats, do so. It is the one reliable way to identify your cat should the door to your house remain ajar for a second too long.

Cats often find strangers entering their home quite stressful. While some of your cats might remain hidden for almost the entire time guests are in the house, others might be stressed and make a break for freedom through an open door.

According to Dr. Ilona Rodan, past president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners and co-chair of the Cat Friendly Practice program, the stress of visitors can cause some cats to become ill, and many cats are seen for health problems or conditions that worsen around the holidays.

If your cats are not the partying type and prefer to hide away or dart outside when the door opens, it is safer and less stressful for them to have a safe room away from the company. Choose a room that they like to be in, along with cat beds, places to perch, and easy access to their food, water, and litter. Entice them in with treats just before company arrives, and close the door. If your company stays for more than a day, your cats might become more comfortable with them. If not, check on your cats regularly to make sure that they are eating, drinking, and eliminating normally.

Keep an eye on visitors’ vehicles to make sure they haven’t overheated and spilled antifreeze. Antifreeze has a sweet taste and is attractive to pets. If you see some (it’s green-tinged) put on gloves, clean it up, and dispose of it in a safe place. You’ll protect your pets, neighborhood pets, and wildlife as well.

Working with feline experts from the American Association of Feline Practitioners, which has the Cat Friendly Practice initiative to reduce the stress of feline veterinary visits, here are the top seven things cat owners should be aware of over the holidays:

1. Poisonous plants

While some pet owners have worried for decades about their cats getting into the poinsettia, as vets we don’t lose any sleep over these plants because poisoning problems are rare and mild, more often causing slight stomach irritation.

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Red lily by Shutterstock

On the other hand, we have a saying that “lilies are lethal,” and they scare us to death. Why? Cats are easily attracted to the smell, taste, and texture of lilies, and the petals, leaves, stems, and pollen are very poisonous.

2. Candles

In our house, we love to have candles burning in most rooms during the holidays. Ahhh, the scent of balsam fir, gingerbread, and pumpkin filling the kitchen, family room, and master bedroom. What we don’t want to smell is burnt cat fur.

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Holiday candles by Shutterstock

It’s easy for a cat to jump up on a counter or table, swish a languid tail across an open flame, and have the hair on his tail go up like tinder. Use covers on jar candles, and put candles up where they’re inaccessible. Best option: Use the new battery-operated candles that look like the real thing.

3. People food

While cats aren’t typically garbage guts like dogs, they can definitely get into problems by eating the wrong thing or too much of the right thing. For example, a 7-pound cat can run into digestive problems if you give him half a pound of fatty turkey, ham, or roast beef trimmings. Sticking to cat food — or a few cat treats — is always the best option.

4. Well-meaning family members

I don’t think I’ve had a holiday in my three and a half decades of practice where I didn’t see pets come into the clinic from accidental poisoning because their owners decided to try and treat a medical problem with something from their own medicine cabinet.

Many cats are stressed by babies.  by Shutterstock.

Many cats are stressed by visitors. by Shutterstock.

Let me give you an example: Last year I saw a large, 20-pound cat who had been given an entire acetaminophen capsule by the nursing student who was home for the holidays and who thought the medicine would solve Simba’s arthritis problems. Not only did Simba not have arthritis (he had urinary tract problems), but the arthritis-strength human painkiller almost killed him. Never give your feline any human over-the-counter products or prescriptions without getting permission and dosages from your veterinarian.

5. Wrappings and ribbon

While presents look beautiful, they could be very dangerous for your cat. Cats love ribbons, shiny things, and boxes.

“Leave the box for them to play in, but get the ribbon and decorations out of sight, said Dr. Elizabeth Colleran, past president of the AAFP, and a member of the Cat Friendly Practice initiative. “Playing with ribbon can result in a very dangerous obstruction in the intestines [that is] often life threatening. Almost always, these require surgery. I once removed a 3-foot piece of red ribbon from Henry, a cat who chewed and swallowed it. It was Christmas Eve, and the day was ruined for the entire family. Thankfully, Henry recovered, but not all cats and families are that lucky.”

6. Trees and decorations

Choose decorations that are feline-friendly to make it a happy holiday for the entire household.

ghost cat in tree 600 x 400

  • Low hanging ornaments on your tree should not be breakable or made of a material or small pieces that your cat could chew and ingest.
  • Some cats like to climb, and your tree might make an excellent adventure opportunity, so secure it in place so it cannot be knocked over.
  • If your cat likes chewing on the tree’s needles, Rodan suggested getting an artificial tree or putting the tree in a place where the cat cannot get to it.
  • Tinsel can be very tempting to cats, and, like ribbon, it can require surgery.
  • Rodan has seen many cats sick from drinking the water from the tree. She recommended a cover for the water (a large bath towel works great).

7. Travel

If you are hitting the road for the holidays, make sure your travel plans include how your cats will spend them.

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Pet sitter by Shutterstock

  • Pet-friendly hotels are common now, but you’ll need to pack some extras. Familiar bedding brings along a little bit of home, along with disposable litter boxes, food, and water bowls.
  • If staying with family, see if there is a separate space so the cats don’t have to share with unfamiliar pets.
  • If the cats get to stay home, make sure that the people taking care of them are familiar to them and familiar with them, their habits, their hiding places, and any special needs. Write down everything they need to know, including your veterinarian’s phone number for questions or emergencies,” Colleran said.
  • Rodan also recommended that “cats who like lots of attention or have health problems that require regular monitoring should be boarded in the veterinary practice. A veterinary technician coming to your home a minimum of twice daily to monitor and treat shy cats is another good alternative.”

However you and your cat are spending the holidays, make sure checkups and vaccines are current. It is always a great precaution; no one likes these types of surprises.

About the author: Dr. Marty Becker, “America’s Veterinarian,” has spent his life working toward better health for pets and the people who love them. The author of 24 books, Becker was the resident veterinary contributor on Good Morning America for 17 years. He is currently a member of the board of directors of the American Humane Association, as well as its chief veterinary correspondent; a founding member of Core Team Oz for The Dr. Oz Show; and a member of the Dr. Oz Medical Advisory Board. When his schedule allows, he practises at North Idaho Animal Hospital. Connect with him on Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest, Twitter, and Google Plus.