Your cat may look adorable in their photo for the family holiday card. But they aren’t so cute when they’re having a “no holds barred” wrestling match with your Christmas tree.
You spent hours adding lots of shiny, shimmery toys they can play with. They’ve also got greens to chew – in the form of pine needles – which they love.
You may have even been thoughtful enough to add a little drinking water under that fun tree skirt too! But then you tell them, “No!” And you do everything you can to keep them away from their new favorite hangout. Or at least, that’s what it looks like to your cat.
The truth is, holiday decorations, and particularly Christmas trees, can actually be dangerous for kitty, not to mention your family heirloom ornaments and homemade cranberry garland. Not to worry! You can keep your cat out of the tree, safe, and still have a beautiful holiday home.
Cat Confusion: You’ve just installed the ultimate party perch just for your kitty!
Try Not to Reward Your Cat for Their Tree Acrobatics
Trying to get your cat’s attention as they dive into the tree, and redirecting them to a less destructive activity, can be an effective training technique if done properly. But, be careful not to inadvertently reward your kitty for getting in the tree.
For example, if they're playing with an ornament and you toss a toy to get their attention, they think, "playing with the ornament means my human will toss toys for me. Fun!" Instead, call them away from the ornament first and then reward them for following your command.
Try a trained cue like "come," or an "interrupt and redirect" distraction to get your cat out of the tree. This is where you do something to pull your cat's focus from the tree, like tossing a ping pong ball or lightly shaking a jar of dry beans.
The trick is they shouldn't know the distraction came from you. It also shouldn't scare them. You want them to leave the tree and go investigate whatever just happened. Then redirect them to something fun and engaging, like a food puzzle or toy.
Christmas Tree Dangers for Cats
We hate to be too doom and gloom. But it’s important to understand where the dangers lie so you can do your best to avoid or abate them.
First up, lights and other decorations that plug into a wall outlet are both a fire and shock hazard. Those wires running through the tree, as well as the cord going to the outlet, are very attractive to cats who like to chew. They can catch a nail if they’re moving through the tree or batting at ornaments. And we all know that damaged electrical wires are extremely dangerous. Cords have also caused strangulation, so it's ideal to not leave your cat unattended around your tree.
Next, picture your cat as a toddler – in that phase where they want to put everything in their mouth. Then give that toddler the ability to jump 6 feet in the air and climb just about anything. Now, look at your Christmas tree. Ornaments, ornament hooks, real or artificial pine needles, glitter, twigs — there’s a lot in there that can end up in your cat’s mouth.
If swallowed, they can experience gastrointestinal upset, which is no fun with your holiday dinner. In serious cases, they could have an internal puncture or blockage requiring emergency surgery. Long stringy decorations, like tinsel, can cause serious damage to their intestines as well. And you know what often happens? Poop on a string. If you see a piece hanging out your cat's backside and you want to know if you should pull it, we've got the answer and tips on how to do this safely and comfortably for your cat.
The needles and branches also have oils that can be irritating to a cat's mouth and stomach. Some symptoms to look out for include excessive drooling, vomiting, or diarrhea.
Going back to that climbing and jumping thing, the stability of your tree is a huge factor in holiday pet (and child) safety. Cats have a lot of power in those hind legs. They can easily topple a tree with a running jump or case of the zoomies. And if your cat decides they want to be the angel or star on top, let’s face it, that tree is probably coming down.
That’s the unpleasant part of this article. Now let’s talk about ways you can keep any of these things from dampening your holiday fun.
Secure Your Tree
Start off on the right foot by making sure your tree is sturdy and secure so your cat won’t be able to shake things off or knock things over. Get a tree stand with a wide, stable base like this one.
And this stand is very stable and has little to no access to water – which can be dangerous for your cat (read more about tree preservatives).
It’s also a good idea to secure your tree from the middle and/or top as well. Use a heavy nylon line or rope attached to the wall or ceiling for that extra layer of support. (Just make sure your cat doesn't chew or swallow the nylon string!)
This unsecured Christmas tree, in the video below, fell because of its height and weight. The family's dog had walked by moments earlier, so luckily no animals or people were harmed when it came down. Needless to say, their nest cam alerted them to movement in their home and they had to rush back to clean up the mess before their pets got into the decorations.
Defend Your Tree from Being Climbed
Try wrapping the base of your tree with aluminum foil. It’s an unpleasant sensation for many kitty paws, and they don’t love the crinkling sound. You can easily drape a thin tree skirt over the foil to pretty it up.
You can also get creative and use decorative garden stones. Cats don’t like feeling unstable when they walk.
Avoid aversive products like shock mats, prickly mats, sharp objects, and motion-activated air cans meant to deter cats. They can cause undue stress that can lead to anxiety, fear, and behavior issues like aggression, hiding, house-soiling, and more.
Anytime you use pain or discomfort to try and stop your cat from doing things that come naturally to them, you risk damaging your relationship and making them less comfortable in their home.
Better to provide your cat with an acceptable alternative to meet their needs. And spending just a few minutes a day, for a couple of weeks, teaching them what to do instead of the unwanted behavior can solve the problem long-term and strengthen your relationship.
You can also use the Christmas Tree Defender, which works GREAT at preventing cats from climbing up a tree from the bottom!
But let’s not forget, cats can easily jump 5+ feet vertically and horizontally. Position your tree away from launching points like bookshelves, high-backed chairs, and fireplace mantles.
See how the Christmas Tree Defender is installed in this video.
If it's sold out on Amazon, you may be able to buy it directly from the manufacturer's website.
Add a few jingle bells to your tree décor to help deter your cat and alert you if they do take a flying leap onto a branch. These dog doorbells are on a strap so that they can be laid across a few branches and tucked into the tree.
As a second choice, these individual bells give you the freedom to add them wherever you’d like.
Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the... oh no the cat just knocked off all the bell ornaments. A cat in a Christmas tree really can be a hilarious holiday sight — until it's not.
Collapsible pet gates can be used to create a wall around the Christmas tree area or even to block off access to that room altogether.
Position your DIY wall a bit of a distance away from the tree. Make sure it’s sturdy and secure so it won’t tip over. Vertical bars will limit your cat’s ability to climb the gates, whereas horizontal or grid bars are essentially a ladder they can scamper right up. A healthy, mobile cat can take a 4-foot jump with no problem. So, the taller, the better.
Use Smells to Keep Your Cat Away From Your Tree
Foil or other defenders might not dissuade your cat from exploring the tree. If that’s the case, you can try some deterrent spray on the tree, ornaments, and electrical cords. Be sure to use a spray made specifically for cats to avoid ingredients that may be irritating or dangerous to them. Instead of freely “spraying” the spray everywhere, saturate a rag and use that to wipe the spray where you need it.
Not only is this safer around electrical cords and outlets, but it helps to contain the scent. If the smell is unpleasant for your cat and spreads throughout the room, it can make them very uncomfortable. NEVER spray directly on or around your cat!
Two quick notes: Sprays can cause respiratory irritation to sensitive cats, such as asthmatic cats. It’s also important to reapply regularly. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security after one application. These sprays require regular application to be effective, and for some cats the smell isn't a deterrent.
Decorating a Cat-Friendly & Cat-SafeTree
Electrical Cord Protection
Use cord protectors to keep cat teeth away from dangerous wires. This split corrugated tubing is inexpensive and comes in a variety of sizes and colors. Or you can use cat-safer battery-powered rope lighting.
Here's a quick video showing you how I covered my electrical cords using the Electriduct Tubing.
Secure Your Ornaments
You can keep your ornaments on the tree, where they’re supposed to be, by ditching those dangerous metal hooks as they pose an ingestion, puncture, and paw injury risk. Use something like twist ties, a wire tie, or large plastic ornament hooks, like the one featured in the image. Be cautious, though. Cats will swallow stray twist ties when given the chance, leading to digestive upset or even puncture due to the thin wire inside.
Choose Appropriate Decorations
Go with ornaments that are sturdy. Avoid lots of dangly pieces that can activate your cat’s play drive, glitter and rhinestones that easily fall off, and fragile decorations that are likely to break with a paw swat or shake of the tree. Consider wood, paper, plastic, burlap, or felt ornaments (as long as they don’t look too much like your cat’s favorite toy). This is particularly important for the bottom of the tree, where your cat has easy access.
Skip decorations made from food. Cranberries, popcorn, gingerbread, and other “edible” ornaments and garland can not only attract your cat’s attention to the tree but also be dangerous if they take a nibble.
Also, on the “skip it” list are stringy ornaments and decorations like tinsel and fuzzy garland. There are actually cat toys that look exactly like those metallic, fuzzy garlands, so it may be unrealistic to expect your cat to leave the real garland alone. If swallowed these decorations can easily cause a linear foreign body digestive obstruction.
Watch out for scented ornaments. Many essential oils can be dangerous to cats, like peppermint and cinnamon. And artificial scents can lead to respiratory issues.
You can even try adding crumpled-up aluminum foil balls through the inner branches to deter kitty from climbing and give your tree a shiny, inner glow.
Danger of Christmas Tree Preservative for Your Cat
For safety's sake, don’t use tree preservatives, which can contain high concentrations of fertilizer that will be dangerous if your cat takes a drink of tree water – and many cats do! Some people also use aspirin to extend the life of their tree — DO NOT DO THIS.
Aspirin is a Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug (NSAID), and while there are a few conditions where cats may be prescribed low doses of aspirin (but only on the advice of a veterinarian), if your cat ingests enough aspirin from your tree water, they could suffer bleeding and ulceration of their stomach and intestines.
Consider a Tree with Less Area to Play
As has been suggested in our comments section, consider a slimmer model.
Pencil trees are great for people who may not have a lot of room to decorate and even less room for storage.
If you have a mischievous feline, they may still jump onto the tree, so securing it is necessary. But you may see less damage to the ornaments, and the tree itself, with these shorter branches.
Give Your Cat a Christmas Tree Alternative
Cats instinctively seek out tall perches where they can lounge safely and survey their surroundings. So, to some degree, expecting a cat to stay out of a Christmas tree is asking them to deny their basic hardwiring. You can head this off at the pass by providing acceptable climbers and perches to meet that need. Reward your cat for climbing the cat tree, and they’ll soon realize that’s the better option.
If you're looking for a cat tree that blends in with your decor or is fancier than any piece of furniture you own (!), check out these very stylish cat tree options.
Preventive Vet staff tip: Mazel is (thankfully) only interested in the tree for a short period of time at night. That being said, when his attention is on the tree, he turns into a tiny feral furry Godzilla type monster, and no lights or ornaments are safe.
PetFusion's Ambush Interactive Cat Toy was a game-changer. It doesn't matter if Mazel is under the tree or sleeping soundly in another room — the second he hears this toy turn on he is up, out, and ready to pounce on the little feather teaser that pops out of random holes around its base.
Mazel is seriously obsessed with this toy. It turns off on its own after about 5 minutes and then he spends the next ten minutes stalking it before deciding his time is better spent grabbing a snack and then taking a nap.
How About a Little Kitty Training for Christmas?
The holidays are a great time to do some training, so your cat will use a cat tree, or other perch, instead of the Christmas tree.
Most cats respond well to rewards. These can be whatever your cat loves — a favorite treat, a special wet food, petting, verbal praise, brushing, playing with a favorite toy, etc. Use this to your advantage and reward the behavior you want from your cat.
When they sit calmly near the tree, they get a treat or play session. When they bat at the ornaments, they get called away or removed from the room.
They’re going to catch on quickly that one of those behaviors gets them the good stuff, and the other gets them nothing at all.
If none of these tips are working and you're ready to give up entirely, it's time to get really creative like these people.
Got any of your own cat-proofing tips for Christmas or other holidays? Let us know in the comments below!