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Let’s Talk Turkey: Your Cat and the Foods of Thanksgiving

Here are tips on navigating your cat’s likes, loves, and land mines during this holiday season.

Susan Logan McCracken  |  Nov 23rd 2016


Editor’s note: Have you seen the new Catster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting area of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our November/December 2016 issue. Click here to subscribe to Catster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.

What’s not to love about Thanksgiving? The delicious feast, the wonderful aroma, the gathering of family and friends — Thanksgiving kicks off the winter holiday season as one of the most treasured American traditions.

When it comes to our kitties during the holidays, our goal first and foremost should be to keep them safe and as stress-free as possible. That’s not to say that our cats won’t enjoy the festivities, but there are some potential hazards we need to know about.

“The holidays should be times of joy for all; however, there are some landmines that can turn a great time for all into disaster,” said Dr. Gary Norsworthy, a board-certified feline specialist and owner of the Alamo Feline Health Center in San Antonio.

First, let’s analyze what cats likely enjoy most about the Thanksgiving feast.

Photo by iStock

The turkey

Turkey itself is not bad for cats. As obligate carnivores, cats need meat and animal fat in their diets, and turkey is the protein source in many nutritious cat foods. The danger lies in the bones, which can splinter in a cat’s digestive tract and cause a fatal tear or blockage.

“Cats are usually agreeable to almost aggressive at eating turkey,” Norsworthy said. “However, easily splintered bones and tiny bones can become lodged in the esophagus, stomach, or small intestines. The ones in the stomach and intestines can be removed with surgery. Those in the esophagus may be fatal.”

“I do let my cats have turkey,” said Ingrid Johnson, Atlanta-based veterinary technician, cat behaviorist, and owner of Fundamentally Feline. “I think that it is a nice reward. I try to offer it to them after the meal, after the hubbub. Offering some of the turkey meat in their safe room is a really nice alternative to make it a positive experience for them. My husband chops it up into nice shredded pieces — minus the bones, of course.”

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Not-so-good side dishes

Personally, the side dishes are my favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal, but I have to be careful not to overindulge, as many of these foods are high in carbohydrates, which are main culprits in our battle with obesity.

Cats also need to go easy on the carbohydrates, because they lack sufficient enzymes to digest carbs. What that means is that overloading their system with carbohydrates can cause obesity, diabetes, and pancreatitis.

“I strongly endorse the move away from carbohydrates for all cats,” Norsworthy said, adding that stuffing, cakes, and pies might still appeal to some cats. I guess cats struggle with being drawn to some foods that aren’t the best for them just as we do.

The stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravies, and green bean casseroles might also contain onions and garlic — two things that both Norsworthy and Ingrid said are toxic for cats.

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“Cats generally don’t like citrus,” Ingrid said. “People put orange in cranberry sauce, so that can deter them. I don’t think (cranberry sauce) would be harmful in any way, but I don’t think they would be jazzed about eating that. They’re going to go for the butter on the bread or the pound of butter on the table.” As a dairy product, butter isn’t the best thing for cats either.

“Ham is another favorite of people and cats,” Norsworthy said. “It is often quite salty. If your cat has heart disease — diagnosed or not — too much salt can send the cat into heart failure.”

Chocolate is notoriously toxic to dogs and cats, although most cats are not that interested in eating it, according to Norsworthy.

“What is the best thing for cats to eat during the holidays? The same things they eat at other times of the year — a well-balanced, low-carbohydrate, high-protein cat food,” Norsworthy said.

Safe treats

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Pumpkin is safe for cats, and some cats do like it, according to Ingrid. Pumpkin can be used to treat cats for constipation. Too much, however, can cause diarrhea. Ingrid said that pumpkin can be used as a kitty treat but in small quantity to avoid giving your cat diarrhea.

As a kitty treat, Ingrid likes to use low- or no-sodium broth to make ice cubes with a piece of meat in the center.

“Drop the ice cube in the bathtub, and let them bat it around,” she said. “You can put them on a cookie sheet, in the sink, or in their water bowls.” Her cats love these year-round, but especially in the summertime. Ingrid placed extra emphasis on making sure the broth contains little to no sodium.

The other stuff

In addition to the meal itself, cats face other dangers during holiday celebrations.

“Cats are often attracted to the wonderful smells of cooking Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners,” Norsworthy said. “They often hover in the kitchen waiting for a handout or dropped goodie.

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In doing so, they may get stepped on by a cook concentrating on his or her duties. Keep the cats out of the kitchen.”

Candles and fireplaces that make our homes cozy can also pose a threat to cats. “A lot of cats burn whiskers off, singe their tail,” Ingrid said about the cases she sees in the clinic during holiday time. “Candles and fireplaces are a big deal.”

The most common holiday emergencies Norsworthy has seen in his 40-plus years as a feline practitioner are intestinal obstructions.

“The things that get cats in trouble include small decorations hung on a Christmas tree, tinsel and garlands on the tree, and ribbons on packages. About one foot of ribbon, string, or thread can easily become lodged and fatal if the cat does not get to surgery pronto.”

Another hazard is the front door or wherever your guests will be entering and exiting.

Kitty safe room

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Photo by Shutterstock

With everything that can happen to your cat during the holidays, your safest option is to keep your cats in a safe, closed bedroom.

“Especially for your door bolters, make an amazing feline wonderland or safe room,” Ingrid said. In Atlanta, where she lives — and many parts for the country — a lot of people have finished basements, which would also work as long as you first look for hazards — like an exposed water heater — that can hurt your kitty.

Here’s what you want to keep in your cat’s safe room:

  • Food, water, and treats
  • Litter box
  • Scratching post
  • A favorite piece of furniture or toy
  • A cat pheromone diffuser

The stress

In addition to the food and safety hazards, cats can easily become stressed during the holidays, because their usual routine is disrupted. Keep in mind that cats like change even less than humans do. Although they do get bored if they are not adequately stimulated with playtime and toys, they do prefer their world — and your schedule — to run in a predictable, routine fashion. The holidays can really throw them off, especially if you are spending less time playing with your cat.

"Houseguests? I'm not getting up." Cat hiding under bedsheets by Shutterstock

“Houseguests? I’m not getting up.” Cat hiding under bedsheets by Shutterstock

Ingrid recommended maintaining their routine as much as possible to reduce stress.

“Keeping your cats de-stressed is an important part about any gathering and holiday,” she said. “They really thrive on routine. When we are distracted with food and guests, we tend to not feed them at their scheduled times, making sure their foraging toys are full. We don’t play with them. And all of those things are important in helping them face this environmental stress.”

We’re only human, and that’s why a cat pheromone diffuser comes in handy. This product replicates cats’ “happy pheromones,” which have shown to keep them calm during stressful situations.

Part of the fun

For those cats who are friendly toward everyone, have never shown an interest in bolting out of your home, and have the temperament of a therapy cat, consider letting them join in on the festivities, but keep an eye on them.

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“I have our cat condo beside our table where we have our dinner, and my cats camp out there so they feel like they’re part of the action without jumping on the table or in people’s laps while they’re eating,” Ingrid said. “I know a lot of people don’t want to have a cat condo in the dining area, but I think that it is an appropriate place for them to hang out rather than ostracizing them from the activity.”

Err on the side of caution, though, when it comes to your cats during holiday feasting and celebrating.

14 foods cat should avoid

  1. Raw or undercooked meat, eggs, and bones
  2. Avocado
  3. Caffeine, chocolate, and coffee
  4. Citrus
  5. Coconut and coconut oil
  6. Grapes and raisins
  7. Macadamia nuts
  8. Milk and dairy products
  9. Nuts
  10. Onions, garlic, and chives
  11. Alcohol
  12. Salt and salty snack foods
  13. Xylitol
  14. Yeast dough

Beware of toxic flowers

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Lilies such as the Easter lily or the Christmas lily are extremely toxic to cats.

One of the most common emergencies that veterinary technician Ingrid Johnson sees during the holidays involves toxic flowers. Many people bring flowers to people’s homes as a holiday gesture, and some are toxic to cats.

“Lilies are one of the most highly toxic plants cats can come into contact with,” Ingrid said. “Even just one or two bites of a petal could send them into end-stage kidney failure that could be fatal in just a few days. I have only seen two cats live that have eaten lilies.”

If you’re picking up flowers for someone else’s house or your own, check the ASPCA Poison Control Center for the list of plants that are toxic and nontoxic to cats.

About the author: Susan Logan-McCracken and her husband are brushing their two cats, Sophie and Maddie, more regularly now that they have found a brush that their kitties love. Their Southern California home has less cat hair floating around in it now.