Dr. Catsby

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Why Cats Love Christmas Lights and Tinsel

Anyone who’s ever had a cat in the same house as a Christmas tree knows how irresistible the seasonal foliage can be to a feline. Plants are already exciting enough to kitties without all the blinking lights, flashing ornaments, and twinkly tinsel. One of my treasured childhood Christmas memories is of my Dad’s cat, Dizzy, curled up underneath a huge, sparkling tree in the living room as we serenaded her with “O Christmas Cat” (an original carol to the tune of “O Christmas Tree”).

But we were lucky. Cats don’t always express their holiday enthusiasm so peacefully. They’ve been known to launch themselves on top of trees, dart around the room and ram into things, or even try to eat the shiny decorations. Why are cats prone to this behavior? And, what can we do to make sure our Christmas decorations are safe for cats?

Carnivores eating plants?

Cats are obligate carnivores, so many a cat owner has been perplexed as to why their feline friend can’t keep houseplants out of his mouth. Sometimes it’s a sign of trouble – if a cat is sick, she might eat a plant to induce vomiting. But usually it’s simple curiosity. Cats explore the world around them through their mouths, so chomping on a houseplant is a way to understand what this strange green thing is.

Unfortunately, some plants – including Christmas trees – are harmful for cats to ingest. Fir tree oil, found in typical Christmas trees, causes mouth and stomach irritation. And sharp pine needles can cause problems if swallowed, too. The solution? Try a product like Apple Bitter to make the tree taste bad to your cat. Even a simple citrus spray will dissuade most curious kitties.

The hunter instinct.

It’s not just that the Christmas tree is a plant. It’s also covered in shiny, swaying decorations that give the illusion of movement. Like a laser pointer, blinking Christmas tree lights create the illusion of a living, moving prey animal when they seem to change speed and direction. Shiny ornaments flashing in the light add to the illusion.

Then there’s the tinsel. Animal psychologists think cats get the zooms for string because it resembles a snake. Although cats don’t typically hunt snakes, the slithery animals are a natural competitor to cats for prey in the same area, and can even pose a threat to cats in the wild. And since tinsel reflects light, it seems to move even more than typical string.

So, how to you protect your kitty and your tree? First, forgo the tinsel. Cats can probably swallow and digest it safely, but the risk of harm just isn’t worth the extra twinkle. You can also set up the tree away from chairs and tables that could serve as a feline launching pad. If you use glass ornaments, keep them out of reach, toward the top of the tree. And keep the door to the room with your Christmas tree shut when you’re not home.

Most importantly, tire out your kitty with plenty of playtime. The more enrichment he gets with safe toys, the less likely he is to expend energy trying to take down your holiday decorations.

Wishing your family a safe and happy holiday,

Hannah and Jade

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