Sunday, April 14, 2024
cat behaviorcatschristmasfeline health

Pet-proofing for the Holidays

black cat with holiday lights
Fromage says, "Lights? What lights? I don't know how they got that way."

It’s kind of like wondering how those of us of a certain age survived our childhoods without seatbelts and bicycle helmets. How did our pets survive before we knew all these cautions about which foods and plants were truly toxic and exactly what a length of curling ribbon could do to their intestines?

Well, a certain number of them didn’t, just as a certain number of children suffered serious or fatal injuries in cars and on bicycles, but we don’t often talk about it.

Before covering the basic warnings, here are a few key points to remember:

1. Animals are not little people. Animals are simply a fraction of our size, so the effect of anything on them will be multiplied in their smaller bodies which don’t metabolize things the same as we do. Consider chocolate and raisins, both of which can be toxic in dogs and cats in smaller amounts than we would eat for fun. Consider aspirin, which a cat’s small body doesn’t metabolize quickly enough to avoid a possible overdose and can be fatal, but can safely be used in reasonable dosages in a dog as a pain reliever.

2. Animals don’t make reasoned decisions in the same way we do. They make decisions based on their own sensibilities as cats and dogs, and because we presume they can’t read or understand warnings about dangers to themselves, these decisions are based on curiosity and adventure and are not always in their own best interest.

3. Don’t ever think your cat or dog “wouldn’t eat that”. They would. Plan on it. Cats are a little more discerning than dogs in choosing what to eat, and even with that, in all the years I’ve had cats they’ve eaten, or attempted to eat, just about anything they could chew and swallow, including such foods as hot peppers, cookies and raw green beans—who would think?!

4. Don’t think your cat or dog “can’t get to it”. They can. They have nothing better to do than to stalk and kill your cheese plate, or the box with the curling ribbon. Confine them if they won’t stay out of something, or get it out of your house.

5. And a special one for the holiday season: Your change in routine will change your pet. Don’t presume you can predict what they will do. Animals are creatures of habit, but this is the one time of the year we intentionally break habits including daily schedules, entertaining guests, and arranging and decorating our space. Our pets may run the spectrum from happily helping to totally freaking out, but the change in plans will have an effect on them and they may not behave in their usual manner, either, making them much less predictable than we are accustomed to.

They can only get into what we leave available for them, so keep them in mind as you prepare. I have links to articles for more information about toxic plants, foods and other dangers at the end of this post.

black cat with holiday toy
Lucy says, "Can't you stay home and play with me?"


Because we’re all a little extra-busy this time of year with social engagements, shopping, cooking, kids home from school and visitors, it’s most important to just keep an eye on your furry companions for any changes in behavior and personality. Some cats are fine with chaos, but Puff doesn’t handle changes in daily schedule very well, and Spot is upset because he just isn’t getting enough attention, including regularly scheduled walks. They’re considering leaving their “opinions” on the carpet in the dining room.

Before it gets to this, try to spend a little “quality time” with them at the same time every day, just to reassure them of their exalted position in the household.

This daily visit with your animal companions also serves a purpose for you, as their caregiver. While their behavior may be simply a reaction to the changes in their world, it may also be an oncoming illness or evidence that they’ve eaten something they shouldn’t have. This would be easy to miss while you are otherwise occupied. If it seems Puff isn’t eating right or Spot is a little lethargic or aggressive, take some time to observe for other symptoms, such as vomiting or diarrhea, irregular breathing, obvious discomfort, salivating, or straining in the box, any of which could signal that the problem isn’t all in their head. A persistence of any of these symptoms would call for an immediate trip to the veterinarian.

black cat investigating gift with ribbons
Giuseppe investigates a gift—and its pretty ribbons.


On any given day, anything can become a toy.

Under the pressure of stress, however, any seemingly inedible and unappetizing object can become a toy and/or a food item. Puff loves string-like objects like tinsel and garlands, ribbon scraps from your gift wrapping or yarn from craft projects, but they can be deadly if they wrap around her tongue or bunch up in the stomach or intestines, often requiring surgery. Spot may begin snacking on the polyester batting you’ve carefully arranged under the tree to mimic snow, and it’s obvious what a big ball of this indigestible substance in the stomach would do, likely beginning with a trip to the emergency clinic.

The abundance of new extension cords to accommodate lights on the tree and otherwise can likewise be a temptation to a bored cat lacking human attention. The tree itself, apparently meant to be climbed, chewed and knocked over after it’s decorated, can become a team effort. Puff can swat decorations to the floor, and Spot can eat them.

Observe their behavior as you decorate the tree and elsewhere in the house. If they are irresistibly drawn to something don’t assume you can dissuade their interest, especially when you’re away. If they persist, just take the thing away.

tortoiseshell cats tasting cheesecake
Two naughty torties caught eating cheesecake.


Of all things, food is the greatest temptation, and the well-behaved animal who would never jump on the table, ever, might be irresistibly tempted and end up in the punch bowl.

My cats will eat as much of a new and exciting food as I will give them, so I have to be careful not to give them too much and careful what I give them. Plain old roast turkey is something their digestive systems are capable of handling–in normal amounts. And while I do get food for them that constitutes a human-grade turkey dinner in a can, it’s in an amount and spiced and flavored appropriate for cats, not for me.

But turkey isn’t the only thing we’ve got on the table, and never underestimate the cunning of an animal who knows it has to sneak. I had a cat who would hide on one of the chairs under the table and would reach just his paw up onto the table to steal whatever was there nearly undetected, except that guests hadn’t arrived yet and I hadn’t eaten the stuffed celery sticks.

And it’s true that animals in the wild eat lots of things that we are told not to feed them, including animal bones, but the difference here is that animal bones tend to become brittle when cooked, especially avian bones, but fresh raw bones, while they can still splinter, are more flexible though still not appropriate for our pets. Turkey bones are out, even if they’re darned cute dragging around a leg bone like a prehistoric pet.

While we can treat our swollen stomach and raging bowels with various medications, our pets have limited options, and overeating can develop into a life-threatening condition if persistent diarrhea or vomiting develop and the animal becomes dehydrated. Be reasonable with your handouts, whether they be treats or some forbidden human food.

Be especially aware of alcohol, chocolate, macadamia nuts and walnuts, caffeinated beverages, onions, raisins and seeds and pits from many fruits. These contain compounds or cause reactions which can affect organ function or slowly poison a cat or dog.

black cat looking at plant
Giuseppe considers tasting a juicy-looking leaf.


Several plants traditionally displayed at the holidays range from unpleasant to toxic depending on the plant and size and age of the animal, but most deadly to cats are plants in the lily family which often enter the house in cut flower arrangements. Even a small amount can cause kidney failure. It doesn’t affect dogs.

Puff and Spot consider any greenery fair game for a lunchtime green salad, and the sudden arrival of poinsettias, mistletoe and holly can cause great excitement, sure to invite a taste of leaf or stem. These three cause varying levels of gastrointestinal distress, which can be a mess to clean up in the least, but can quickly become very serious. And while an adult animal in good health can often nibble these plants to no obvious ill effect it’s not wise to take chances. For a kitten, puppy or senior animal or one that may have a compromised immune system the experience can be fatal.


Because of the general disorder in the household during the holidays and Puff’s propensity to play with any small portable object that’s fallen on the floor, be especially careful of even over-the-counter medications. Cats don’t metabolize medications like most other animals, even dogs, and a small white pill dropped on the floor or swatted off of a counter can become a deadly session of feline hockey or a fatal treat for Spot. Best to keep to catnip.

black cat at window with candolier
Mewsette is happy inside.


Now that Puff and Spot are totally fed up with your antics and being told “no” all the time, your loud, obnoxious great-aunt and uncle arrive to spend the holidays with you. Aunt Millie just LOVES kitties and puppies and wants to HUG and SQUEEZE Puff and Spot while Uncle Harold yells at them to SCAT whenever he sees so much as a whisker of one of them. Puff and Spot are now considering moving their “complaint” site from the dining room to Millie and Harold’s bed, or perhaps their suitcases, and they’re sharpening their claws for an encounter. It just may be time for the final solution.


For indoor cats with formerly no intention to go outside and work for a living, everything has changed. It looks like a really silent night out there, not like this madhouse, and no one may notice if they scoot out the door as a guest arrives or you come in the door loaded with packages. The dog who normally asks to go outside may also bolt out the door into the night with your dinner about to go on the table.

And with all the hazards of decorations, scissors, tape, ribbons, cooking utensils and who knows what else, setting up personal quarters for Puff and Spot might be the best idea to keep them safe over the holiday season, at least for some periods during the day or during times when visitors are present, candles are lit, canapé trays are on every table and glasses of wine are poured.

For more information on plants toxic to cats and potentially toxic foods, visit the Humane Society of the United States for Keep Your Pets Safe and Happy During the Holiday Season and the ASPCA’s Holiday Safety Tips. Both have tips and links to information on toxic plants and “pet-safe floral arrangements”, and various potentially toxic foods. Also keep a link the the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center for reference at the holidays and beyond.

So, do you get holiday gifts for your pets? Do your friends give your pets gifts along with you? Or better yet, do others give you gifts of cat or dog toys and treats?

Make sure your kitty has a great holiday!

tortoiseshell cat with christmas catnip toy
Cookie shows the proper way to enjoy a catnip toy, especially when a corner is leaking 'nip.

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From health and welfare to rescue and adoption stories, advocacy and art, factual articles and fictional stories, "The Creative Cat" offers both visual and verbal education and entertainment about cats for people who love cats, pets and animals of all species.

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