Most of us look forward to the Christmas festive period, at least once we have done all of the hard work which goes to having everything ready! Often we have a houseful of visitors and sometimes their pets too. For some cats having the family home for a couple of weeks is really enjoyable; for others it may be stressful because of the changes which take place. Houses fill up with all sorts of new things – trees, decorations, parcels, food, candles, people and even visiting pets which come with the people (and sometimes the people may behave a little strangely if the alcohol is flowing!). Of course it is not just Christmas when all these things apply – any type of celebration or festival brings changes, so taking a bit of time to think it through from a cat’s point of view could help make it good for all creatures, and the same principles apply.
As a species cats enjoy routine and are sensitive to changes in their environment. For less confident cats changes can be challenging. In addition, the season means certain toxic plants and food may be accessible to curious cats. At International Cat Care we consulted our veterinary members to ask them what injuries they see at this time of year too. Based on this information and with the input of the Veterinary Poisons Information Service (VPIS) this article offers advice on what to keep out of reach and what to do to minimise the disruption to keep our cats happy this Christmas.
Poinsettia, is often mentioned as a potentially poisonous plant but its reputation is perhaps unfair. The Veterinary Poisons Information Service inform us that in over half the cases reported to them of pets eating Poinsettia plants, the cat showed no signs of illness. If they did, the signs were mild, such as being sick, drooling, refusing food and being quieter than normal, and soon resolved without any specific treatment. Nevertheless it is still a good idea to keep the plant out of reach. In addition, mistletoe, holly, ivy and Christmas cherry can cause a tummy upset and should be kept away from inquisitive cats. Berries often fall off displays brought into the house as they dry out in the heat of fires and central heating. Pick them up before they become playthings for cats – especially kittens which might be more affected because of their small body size.
Many cat owners have had the experience of their cat climbing the Christmas tree and causing it to topple. Usually cat and tree are unharmed, but it is worth thinking ahead (especially if you have kittens or curious young cats which are likely to try getting into the tree) by tying the top of the tree to something secure just in case! Injuries have been caused from falling from Christmas trees and from the resulting smashed glass baubles which can be particularly sharp when broken. Ingestion of Christmas tree needles and the fake snow applied to them can cause stomach upset. More information on fake snow can be found here. Chewing of lights and wires can be a problem, especially for nosy kittens. It is not uncommon for cats to pass urine just where you don’t want them to (especially if they are feeling somewhat stressed) - such as under the tree where there are often extension sockets for the multiple strings of lights which adorn the tree. Try to put multiple extension sockets into a box or cover them in some way so that they cannot get wet, and to keep all the wires away from animals (or children).
At this time of celebration food may be left out and left-overs left are within reach. We traditionally worry about dogs because eating chocolate can be toxic for them - but what about cats? Chocolate is also toxic to cats, although the amount a cat needs to eat to make them ill is a lot higher than for dogs, and they are not usually so tempted to eat it. Signs of chocolate poisoning including being sick and passing diarrhoea, drinking a lot, appearing drunk, trembling or even having a fit.
Similarly, grapes and raisins, known for causing kidney damage in dogs, may affect cats but poisoning is much less common. The VPIS would however advise treatment of cats known to have eaten these foods, and suggest that, for example, mince pies are not left out. If you think your cat has eaten such food contact your vet who may call the VPIS for advice.
While it may be tempting to treat your cat with special treats or scraps from the Christmas dinner remember that changes to diet can be upsetting. While a little left-over turkey will be enjoyed by the majority of cats without harm, excessive treats and human food could make a cat ill, so do try and stick to their normal feeding routine this time of year; they won’t know they are missing out! Another hazard can be cooked poultry bones – they are hard for cats to digest and can get stuck in the digestive system so make sure your cats can’t raid the bin after the Christmas lunch.
One of our vets reported seeing a cat with a singed tail from Hannukkah menorah candles and certainly exposed candles can be a hazard to cats who tend to jump onto windowsills and mantelpieces where candles are placed. As elevated locations are still accessible to most cats, candles should be kept where you can keep an eye on them or left off the Christmas list.
Festive foreign bodies
‘Foreign bodies’ is the term used to describe non-food items that have become lodged in a cat’s body, often the digestive tract. In our Keeping Cats Safe campaign, we have mentioned them before (see http://icatcare.org/vets/keeping-cats-safe-campaign/foreign-bodies). They are less common in cats than in dogs, but we were surprised by the number reported by our veterinary members. When we asked them about Christmas hazards this was the most commonly reported medical issue linked to the season. ‘Linear foreign bodies’ - those string or string-like materials causing a problem, appear to be the most common. Tinsel lametta (the long thin decorative strips of tinsel) and string (around meat or used to hang decorations) were common culprits. One of our vet members reported removing a sticky mass of sellotape from a cat’s intestine in June that had been there since Christmas, evidenced by the holly leaf pattern still visible in places! If your cat seems to be interested in chewing tinsel or any other string-like material, try to keep it away, remove the material if possible, and keep an eye on your pet for signs of illness. These signs can be subtle in cats and include simply sleeping more, hiding away and being sick or refusing food. Consult your vet if you are worried about your pet and do mention any non-food material you have seen your cat chewing.
How to make Christmas less stressful for cats
This time of year means lots of changes to a home and, for cats who often thrive on predictability, routine and the perceived safety of their territory (their home and garden), this can be unsettling. The furniture is often moved around to accommodate extra guests, the tree is brought in, lights and decorations are put up, music is played, all making their home look, sound and smell different. In addition, unfamiliar people, and worse still unfamiliar dogs, may visit the house or even stay for several days, again at variable times, interrupting the normal routine. In order to minimise distress during this season consider the following:
- Ensure your cat has several safe and comfortable places to hide and get away from the noise and hustle and bustle. A cardboard box or igloo bed above the wardrobe or under the bed can provide security. If new beds are added to the home at this time, make them smell familiar by adding bedding already used by your cat.
- Advise visitors not to approach the cat if it is in its bed, but only to stroke the cat if it initiates contact. Visiting children may be keen to see and cuddle the cat, but gentle stroking on the cat’s initiation must be insisted upon.
- Guests can be given cat treats and toys to help teach the cat positive associations.
- Ensure there is always an open door to allow the cat to get away from any noisy parties or dinners to a quieter part of the home.
- Consider plugging in a ‘Feliway’ diffuser into the room in which the cats spends most time, several days before the festivities begin. This product (available from your vet) contains feline pheromones which can help the cat feel more secure. Ensure it is switched on continually throughout the festive season.
- If visitors are sleeping in one of the rooms the cat usually uses, for example, for sleeping, eating or toileting, be sure to provide the required resources (beds, food or litter tray) in other quieter parts of the house and ideally, before the visitors arrive so that changes occur gradually and the cat is comfortable with the new location.
- If the cat’s litter tray is positioned in a place that will mean more people traffic or noise during the Christmas period, provide an additional litter tray in a quieter part of the home.
- If the cat is particularly sound sensitive, avoid crackers and party poppers.
- If a dog is visiting it may be helpful to restrict its access to the cats retreat areas using, for example, baby gates on the stairs.
The Christmas season is a time for celebration but don’t forget your cat this year. Simple changes can keep cats safe and make them feel more secure.