Holiday Safety Tips for Cat Owners

By Anne Dagner, DVM; Krista Williams, BSc, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM

During times of celebration, friends and family often gather in our homes. At these times, it is easy to overlook potential hazards to your cat's health and safety. To prevent mishaps for your cuddly companions, it is important that you recognize these potential dangers.

My cat enjoys playing with ribbons, tinsel, and other decorations. Is this okay? 

Most cats enjoy playing with ribbons, string, and tinsel, especially if they are shiny or moving. Kittens and young cats tend to be more curious and playful and appear to see these items as toys that need to be chased, pounced upon, chewed, or swallowed. While chasing and pouncing are healthy physical activities for cats, chewing and swallowing ribbons, strings, or tinsel can be harmful.

When swallowed, these "linear foreign bodies" can become entangled in the intestinal tract, leading to bunching of the intestines as the body tries unsuccessfully to pass the string or ribbon. With each intestinal contraction, the rough or abrasive material rubs against the walls of the intestines, causing inflammation.

Eventually, the material can even cut through the intestinal wall: a life-threatening emergency requiring surgical intervention. If you notice ribbon or tinsel making its way out of your cat’s anus, do not pull!  Take your cat to see your veterinarian for professional intervention. Pulling a linear foreign body can be dangerous, but your veterinarian can address the issue safely.

"When swallowed, these "linear foreign bodies" can become entangled in the intestinal tract."

If you want to let your kitten play with string or ribbon, only allow it to play with the item while under your direct supervision. Better yet, do not even encourage this sort of play – use toys specifically designed for games of chase and pounce.

Do I have to worry about my cat playing in the Christmas tree?

Your curious cat can bring down the tree, so make sure it is set up securely and cannot fall if your cat decides to climb it. Be sure to block off access to the tree’s watering dish. Tree water can contain harmful fertilizers and/or breed bacteria that cause stomach upset should your cat decide to sample this new water bowl.

I love the glow of candles in the holidays – do I need to worry about them?

Candles should never be left unattended, as cats can burn themselves or knock them over with a flick of their tail. Use battery-powered candles instead.

My cat likes to chew on cords. Can this be harmful?

Dangling cords of various types are tempting to cats that like to play with string, or kittens that are teething, and are interested in chewing. Cats have extremely sharp teeth that can easily penetrate the insulation around electric light cords or extension cords. If your cat bites through an electrical cord that is plugged in, it could ca severe burn to the tongue or an electrical shock that could damage the lungs or heart. This is an emergency requiring immediate veterinary attention.

I've heard that chocolate is poisonous to animals. Is this true?

Many people do not realize that chocolate can be a poison when eaten in large amounts, even to people! Chocolate contains a chemical called theobromine, which has caffeine-like activities. Theobromine is used medicinally as a diuretic, heart stimulant, blood vessel dilator, and a smooth muscle relaxant.

"In severe overdoses, the only symptom may be sudden death."

Unsweetened or baking chocolate contains a much higher amount of the potentially toxic theobromine than milk chocolate (approximately 10 times the amount on average). For the average cat, weighing 11 pounds (5 kg), the toxic amount of milk chocolate is approximately 11 ounces (or 11 squares). However, only 1–2 ounces (1-2 squares) of baking chocolate or high-quality dark chocolate has the potential to be fatal. An 8-week-old kitten usually weighs 1–2 pounds (less than 1 kg) and can be poisoned by only 1 ounce of milk chocolate. Clinical signs of chocolate poisoning include hyperexcitability, nervousness, vomiting, and diarrhea. In severe overdoses, the only symptom may be sudden death.

What sort of festive plants are toxic to cats?

Contrary to popular belief, poinsettia is not specifically toxic, but can cause intestinal upset. Sap from the leaves and stems of this festive plant can irritate a cat’s mouth and stomach.

Some mistletoe species are toxic, causing liver failure or seizures, while other species only irritate the intestinal tract if ingested. There are several types of mistletoe, which makes it difficult to predict the clinical signs of poisoning with this popular holiday trimming. It is wise to consider mistletoe to be hazardous and keep it out of reach of your pets. Likewise, holly can cause gastrointestinal upset if ingested.

Many plants belonging to the lily family are highly toxic to cats. Because of this risk, it is best to prevent your cat or kitten from chewing on peace lilies, Christmas lilies, or other plants belonging to this family.

Other seasonal plants that are toxic to cats include daffodils, narcissi, and spring bulbs that are commonly “forced” to bloom during the winter that bring a “breath of springtime” into our homes.

I like to give my cat some of our holiday dinner as a treat. Is there anything I should avoid?

We all like to include our pets in holiday meals along with the rest of the family, but keep in mind that sudden rich diet changes are likely to upset your cat’s stomach. Vomiting and diarrhea are common medical problems that veterinarians see during any holiday time, and especially between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.

If you wish to feed your cat a special treat, give only a small amount of lean meat. If you feed leftovers that contain a lot of fat, your cat's pancreas may become overworked and inflamed. This serious condition is known as pancreatitis and usually requires hospitalization and intensive medical treatment.

Make sure that any string or packaging used to prepare roasts or turkeys is safely disposed of in a sealed garbage container. Most cats cannot resist digging these well-flavored items out of the trash and eating them, potentially causing an intestinal obstruction.

It is a good idea to keep your pets out of the kitchen during the hustle and bustle of the season. The last thing you want is for them to get underfoot and get burned or otherwise injured.

My cat hides from company; how can I help her?

Try to provide a quiet space away from company where she can feel safe, but still has access to fresh water and a litter box, as well as some cozy blankets. Take time to play with her and give extra cuddles during the holidays. There are a number of mild calming remedies such as Zylkene®, L-theanine (brand name Anxitane®), and Feliway® that you can use during the holidays to minimize your cat’s anxiety. Ask your veterinarian if these would be suitable for your cat.

"Take time to play with her and give extra cuddles during the holidays."

By observing a few commonsense guidelines, you can share a safe and healthy celebration with your cat and give thanks for the companionship you enjoy with your four-legged family members.

Related Articles