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Ask Einstein: ‘Tis the Season for Holiday Hazards for Cats

Poisonous plants and food as well as hazardous decor and trees are among holiday safety concerns.

Dusty Rainbolt  |  Dec 23rd 2014


Holy Cat Balls, Einstein,

I’m a little worried these days. The holidays are here and the cat next door told me he had to go to an emergency clinic last Christmas. He had a bunch of tubes stuck in his leg all cuz he took one bite of one little flower. The vet said if his people hadn’t caught him eating the lily, he’d have been a goner. According to him he was just taste testing a flower his human got as a gift, and wham, he’s sick as a dog.

Another dude I know straddled a Menorah. For a while he looked like moths had chewed a hole in his coat.

Should I hide until the holidays are over? I don’t want to be an Angel

Hopefully you won’t be singing with the angels.

Christmas and Hanukkah are supposed to be joyous seasons, but during the holidays humans feel the need to turn the house upside down, and a lot of weird things happen.

While there are a lot of dangers associated with Christmas, Hanukkah isn’t a picnic either. Even though it started a few days ago, humans should protect us during the Festival of Lights. Rich Hanukkah foods containing onions, as well as chocolate coins, are mostly attractive dangers to dogs. The big kitty foe is fire. To protect family and feline, lock us away during the lighting of the menorah. Kitties are notorious around candles. We don’t want to turn such a happy celebration into a Jewish version of Mrs. O’Leary’s cat. Besides, the smell of smoldering fur doesn’t add one bit to the festivities.

Christmas is no celebration for us either. Humans bring a tree into the house and then get their knickers all in a wad when we try to enjoy the very thoughtful gift. If humans insist on tempting us with trees, they need to use their heads. They can secure it to the wall or ceiling with heavy fishing line. That won’t stop us from scaling it, but at least it won’t fall over and break a bunch of ornaments.

The word is that Christmas tree lights can bewitch us right into the emergency clinic. They look and act like sparkly lizards. Families with precocious pusses might want to invest in a fiber-optic tree instead of tempting us with strings of lights, or spray the wires with bitter apple. This tastes nasty. But it’s not a cure-all. Some kitties are determined and will chew anyway.

Shimmery tinsel icicles dangling from the branches act just like cat toys. Anything stringy begs us, “Bite me!” Tinsel causes twinkle turds. It may look funny to have that shiny stuff dangling out your behind, but tinsel can wrap around your tongue or anchor itself in the stomach. When the intestines contract and move, tinsel can saw through them, making it a bad day at the office. (Thread for stringing popcorn, ribbons and cooking twine do the same thing without the “sparkles.”) A better choice: dried or silk baby’s breath on the branches or, if they must use tinsel, your people should probably spritz it with bitter apple to make it less appealing.

Your people shouldn’t put ribbon or yarn on packages they’re giving to fellow cat lovers. Instead, have your mom cat hot glue an ornament or silk flowers directly to the wrapping paper.

Tree water offers yet another way to hurt kitties. Hopefully your tree drinks only tap water or a commercial preservative labeled nontoxic to children and pets. Homemade formulas made with acetaminophen or aspirin are deadly propositions if you decide to drink from it. Stagnant tree water can also breed a whole galaxy of disgusting bacteria that can have you projectile vomiting all over the house.

I’ve never understood why humans give other humans a gift that can hurt kitties. If they love us, shouldn’t they be careful about what they give other cat people? High on the Stupid Gifts List are candles. All it takes is a lighted candle and a friendly bump from a kitty like you and — poof — like magic, the house is up in smoke, and you could get a really nasty burn. A better choice is a fragrant flameless candle.

Speaking of owies, people may think they’re ratcheting things up a few safety notches by substituting liquid potpourri in a simmering pot for flaming candles. But they’re not really. It’s true: Potpourri pots stink up the house with cinnamon and orange like candles do. And you’d have to work hard to set the house on fire with one of those. According to those smart docs at the ASPCA/Animal Poison Control Center, simply brushing up against potpourri cooker can burn your skin, mouth, and even your eyes. Cats who aren’t so high up on the IQ ladder have actually drunk from the pot and really found themselves in a world of hurt.

But even cats who are smarter than to sip straight from a magnolia-scented fountain can swallow some of the mixture. After walking through some spilled liquid or rubbing up against the cooker your skin or paws burn, so you lick them. Then it burns your mouth and throat. It can rough up dogs a bit too, but dogs aren’t the sensitive souls like we kitties are, and most of them aren’t limber enough to get on a counter or table.

As if that’s not enough to worry about, there’s the holiday plant problem. Folks who would never dream of being careless with bottled poisons may not give a second thought to the foliage they keep inside or give to other cat owners. Some plants traditionally given and received as holiday gifts are highly toxic to us kitties. Left unsupervised, some of our bored feline cousins will chew on plants. Your people should discard anything in the lily family (including Easter lily, as well as Stargazer, Tiger, Asian, Japanese Show, and Casa Blanca lilies). The APCC says just chewing on a lily leaf will shut down your kidneys. You might just as well have a drink of antifreeze on the rocks. Putting off treatment more than 18 hours can end in, well the big, “The End.”

Want to hear something really unfair? Dogs might puke their innards out if they eat lilies, but that’s about it. Lucky dogs! Mistletoe is also bad. Other deadly holiday plants or flowers are Star-of-Bethlehem, eucalyptus, Jerusalem cherry, Narcissus, holly, and most any plant bulb.

Despite their deadly reputation, poinsettias are mostly bark and not much bite. The APCC says they cause stomach upset and puking but aren’t considered the cat killers they once were. But that doesn’t mean they are necessarily safe, either. Because of all the drooling and ralphing, you could get dehydrated.

Other plants that will leave you feeling really poopy to pukey, and probably require an expensive trip to the vet, are: Christmas rose, philodendron, dieffenbachia, elephant ear, Boston or English ivy, and pyracantha. Almost any plant will cause vomiting because we kitties simply aren’t herbivores.

Those APCC folks say (with the exception of lilies that kill with just a nibble) the severity of a poisoning depends on the how much poison the cat swallows, how concentrated it is, and how much the kitty weighs. A one-pound kitten will get a lot sicker than a 16-pound Maine Coon.

Your humans can read a list of nontoxic plants here.

Now that I’ve brightened your day, Angel, my final words of advice are: Stay low and don’t bite anything that doesn’t say “cat food” on the packaging. Hopefully you’ll survive the holidays. If your folks don’t take these steps to keep you safe, I’d leave something besides coal in their Christmas stocking.

If your person suspects that either you or the dog has ingested a toxic plant or other poison, immediately call the ASPCA/Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435. This is not a free service; there is a $65 per case consultation fee. If the poisoning is related to a product, some manufacturers will pay the consultation fee.

Read more about holidays and safety on Catster:

Got a question for he who knows everything feline? Just Ask Einstein in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. (Letters don’t have to be written from the cat’s point of view.) Remember, any change in your cat’s behavior or activities could be a symptom of disease and should be investigated by your vet, even if it unfortunately involves glass tubes and cat posteriors.