Cats are inquisitive and curious for good reason. As prey animals and predators in nature, their survival depends on knowing everything and everyone in their territory. They explore and test everything that is new to them. They specifically need to know: What is this? Is this edible? Will this eat me? Understanding our cats’ need to know the answers to these questions will help us prepare to meet their needs during times of change, like the holidays when our homes and routines are rearranged.
During the holidays, so much is new: the tree, the decorations, the lights, the ornaments, the presents, not to mention all the new holiday smells of pine, pumpkin spice and holiday-scented candles. The smells must be overwhelming for a cat, who has a much stronger sense of smell than we do. Your cats, who identify people and objects by smell, will have to sniff everything.
To make this less overwhelming for your cat, start decorating early and only bring out a few decorations at a time. Let the cat sniff them, and give her time to explore and adjust to them. Give your cats treats and special rewards to positively reinforce that all is calm and all is bright in their territory.
Traditional Christmas ornaments are about the size of cats’ prey, so you can’t blame them when they bat them around and give them a taste test. This can be annoying if they break an heirloom ornament that has been in your family for generations. This also can be extremely dangerous for your cats if they eat something that punctures an internal organ or causes an intestinal blockage. Cats may also attempt to drink water from a live holiday tree.
Atlanta-based feline behaviorist and owner of Fundamentally Feline, Ingrid Johnson, doesn’t worry as much about cats eating human foods as she does foreign objects over the holidays.
“Foods are more of a dog concern,” she says. You still wouldn’t want your cats eating things like onions and gravies, but with cats, you have to watch out for them playing with and ingesting holiday decorations, she says.
Ingrid warns about curling ribbon on presents under the tree, the tinsel and anything else that can be gnawed off and chewed. “That nylon curling ribbon is some dangerous stuff for cats,” she says. Ingrid has witnessed the dangers holiday decorations like ribbon and tinsel pose to cats for more than 20 years as a veterinary technician.
You can use fishing line or a thin, undetectable cord to secure the Christmas tree to the wall, so if the cats climb the tree, they won’t pull it over, Ingrid says. And keep ornaments and tinsel out of your cat’s reach.
“I use soft and non-sentimental ornaments toward the bottom,” Ingrid says. “The more fragile, sentimental ornaments go up high,” adding that some people make ornaments out of felt. “Of course, cat-safe ornaments are best for the whole tree, if your cat is one to climb the holiday tree.”
You can also use chew deterrents like bitter apple on the bottom of the tree and on other objects to discourage cats from going near them.
Ingrid decided to forgo the holiday tree altogether in her home, which she shares with seven cats, a Great Pyrenees dog and a husband. “I put festive bowls filled with garland beads, small Christmas balls in different parts of the house with no plants, leaves, ribbons and nothing ingestible but still festive,” she says.
My husband and I use a fiber optic tree that lights up and turns, which in itself deters my cats from jumping on it. Cats’ survival instinct compels them to learn whether anything or anyone in their territory is safe. You might see them paw at anything new, then jump away. Cats tend to be afraid of or at least have a healthy respect for anything that is the size of their natural predators and moves, like a vacuum cleaner or a revolving Christmas tree.
Humans are also the size of cats’ predators. When new people show up at your home, some cats will not stick around to find out if they’re facing a predator and may run and hide. When they do venture out of their safe space, they approach everything new in their territory at first with caution, because they need to know if it’s safe. Once they have established that something or someone is safe, they mark the person or object with their facial pheromones. It’s the highest compliment!
Holidays are a time when people your cats do not know are visiting from out of town. Provide your cats with a safe room filled with their favorite things, litter box, food and water, so they feel secure and don’t dart out the front door when guests are coming and going.
For cats, who like routine and consistency, holidays can be stressful. “The holiday parties, houseguests, moving furniture around to accommodate the tree,” Ingrid says. All of these can stress out your cat, and stress can lead to pancreatitis, which she sees in cats around holiday time.
“It’s important to maintain consistency in routine in the change and day-to-day disruption with the holidays,” Ingrid says. Consistent mealtimes, playtimes and enrichment are all vital to continue throughout the holiday season.
One enrichment tip Ingrid suggests is bringing in snow from outside on a cookie sheet so they can lick at it and smack at it with their paws and experience the season. “In times of stress, you can ramp up the indoor fun,” she says.
It’s likely that your cats have their favorite toys. Bring them out even if it’s only for a few minutes each day to maintain some of the familiarity they crave in their world.
Poinsettias get a bad rap, but lilies should come with a tag, says feline behaviorist and veterinary technician Ingrid Johnson, owner of Fundamentally Feline based in Atlanta. “Just one bite of a lily can be fatal for a cat,” she says.
“I only had one patient live who has eaten a lily in 20 years, and that patient lived with chronic kidney disease for the rest of his life. If you have cats, don’t have lilies.”
As for poinsettias, the ASPCA reports these clinical signs: “Irritating to the mouth and stomach, sometimes causing vomiting, but generally over-rated in toxicity.”
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