I Couldn't Keep My Cats Out of My Christmas Tree, So I Got Advice From 3 Vets

Pexels / Jessica Lewis

The holiday season means many of us will be putting up a Christmas tree. And for many of our cats, it means it’s time to find as many ways to mess with the tree as possible. I have three cats, and when the tree is up, the first place I know to look for them is in or underneath it. Whether they’re climbing and rustling in the branches, swatting ornaments off the tree, or sitting underneath eating ribbons and tinsel, they can’t get enough of our Christmas tree. As cute as they may be curled up among the presents, it can get pretty darn annoying (and, as I’ve found out, dangerous).

With three little rascals to constantly try to keep out of the tree, my family has mostly accepted the fate of our Christmas tree and everything around it. We’ve even started decorating the bottom half with specially chosen cat-toy ornaments. But after speaking with three veterinarians, it seems we’ve backed down too easily.

Turns out, there are as many reasons to stop your cats from getting into your Christmas tree as there are ways to do it. From citrus peels to foil, here are some ways to keep your kitty from climbing up and becoming the angel (or devil . . . ) on top of your Christmas tree.

Why Does My Cat Climb and Play With My Christmas Tree?

There is a combination of reasons your cat might enjoy climbing and playing with your Christmas tree. “Instinctively, cats like to perch and sleep up high,” said Dr. Travis Arndt, DVM, medical director of Animal Medical Center of Mid-America. “It gives them a good vantage point of everything going on below, and being in high places allows them to better protect themselves from possible dangers that lurk below.”

Not only that, but cats are also intrigued by the novelty of a Christmas tree, added Dr. Michelle Burch, DVM, veterinary writer and adviser for Catological. Climbing them will offer a new view of the house, and due to the unfamiliar scent, your cat will probably feel the need to investigate and apply their scent. “Your cat is likely to mark its territory by scratching and face rubbing along every part of the tree,” Dr. Burch said.

Even more, ornaments, tinsel, lights, and garlands on a tree look just like toys to cats, explained Dr. Jamie Richardson, DVM, medical chief of staff at Small Door Veterinary. Your cat may also decide to use the water or soil in your tree stand as a litter box, she said.

Is It Dangerous For My Cat to Play With My Christmas Tree?

As fun as your tree can be for your cat, Dr. Richardson explained that “holiday trees can also pose many dangers to cats, so it’s important to discourage them from climbing them.” Almost every part of and around your tree can pose a potential risk to your cats as well as other pets in your house.

If unsecured, your Christmas tree may fall over while your cat is climbing it, potentially causing injuries to your cat, Dr. Richardson said, adding that decorations can cause gastrointestinal problems if ingested. “Tinsel, if swallowed, can get stuck in the intestines and bunch up, where it will cause a painful, life-threatening blockage and infection,” she stressed. Ornaments and decorations, too, she added, whether plastic or glass, may break and obstruct or puncture the gastrointestinal tract – or cut your cat or cause other external injuries.

Lights and cords could also electrocute your cat if chewed on, Dr. Arndt said. He also said your Christmas tree itself could harm your cat: the oils and needles from trees can cause gastrointestinal trouble and may puncture your cat’s intestinal lining.

Even the water in a tree stand poses a potential risk. Pine sap, preservatives, and fire retardant that can be put into the water at the base of the tree are harmful to cats, Dr. Arndt said. Additionally, Dr. Richardson said bacteria can grow quickly in tree water, which can lead to an upset stomach for your cat if ingested.

How Can I Prevent My Cat From Getting Into My Christmas Tree?

Make the Tree Safer

Even if your cat rarely gets into the tree, make sure your tree is anchored to the wall, Dr. Richardson said. That way, it won’t fall over and hurt your cat or damage anything in your home. She also suggested making sure there’s no access to the water in your tree stand if you use a live tree – and don’t use chemical preservatives and Christmas tree extender products in your water. As for ornaments, she said to make sure all decorations are shatterproof, to avoid decorating with tinsel, and to place fewer low-hanging ornaments.

Make the Tree Less Desirable

One way to make your tree less desirable to climb is by selecting a pricklier species of Christmas tree if you buy a live tree, Dr. Burch suggested. They may be a little more challenging to decorate, she said, but trees like the Colorado Blue Spruce and the Norway Spruce can help dissuade your cat from climbing.

She also recommended a variety of different repellants you can use to keep your cat away from your tree. Apple cider vinegar, citronella oil spray, and orange juice can all be applied around your tree to repel your cat. Dr. Burch suggested spraying pine cones with citronella oil and placing them below or hanging on your tree or placing orange peels around your tree.

Use Humane Discouragement

A scat mat can also be placed under your Christmas tree skirt, Dr. Burch said. When your cat steps on the mat, they “will receive a safe but startling static correction,” she said, which will train your cat to stay away from the tree.

Negative reinforcement can also be used, according to Dr. Richardson. “When you catch your cat climbing the tree, clap your hands loudly or use a water spray bottle to startle them,” which will discourage them from climbing the tree again, she said.

“You can also cover the base with foil, since many cats don’t like the feel and sound,” Dr. Arndt said. Try finding a holiday-patterned foil wrapping to turn it into a decoration. “If your cat is scratching the tree, try wrapping the trunk with double-side sticky tape,” Dr. Richardson suggested.

Regardless of what discouragement approach you use, “ensure you never hit or otherwise physically punish your cat. This is inhumane and has been proved ineffective as a training method,” Dr. Richardson stressed.

Provide Alternatives

“If your cat has plenty of other high perches in the home to look down from, several scratching posts, and toys available, they may be less inclined to play with the tree,” Dr. Richardson said, adding that you can even try spraying these things with a cat pheromone spray to encourage your cat to use them instead of your tree – or “use positive reinforcement like treats and affection as rewards when your cat uses the correct toys.”

“When all else fails,” Dr. Burch joked, “hang your Christmas tree upside down from the ceiling!” (No, seriously, you can!)

Despite all these methods, sometimes your cat just might not be dissuaded from messing with your Christmas tree. In this case, you might want to reconsider your traditional decorating plans and look at these alternative Christmas trees for cat owners.

Whichever way you choose to try to keep your cat from messing with your tree, make sure you have your veterinarian’s phone number as well as the pet poison hotline phone numbers handy in case of an emergency or accidental ingestion.

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