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Christmas Safety

Q: “How do I keep my cat and dog away from my Christmas tree, the dog tries to drink the water and the cat plays with the ornaments, any ideas?”

A: The Holiday season can be a fun time for you and your pets.  However, the Holiday season also presents potential hazards for your pets.

Your dog/cat can ingest ribbons or string used to attach holiday decorations.  Your dog/cat can also ingest tinsel that falls from the tree or artificial snow placed on the ground for aesthetic purposes.  Once ingested, long thin pliable materials pose a high probability of creating an intestinal obstruction that may require surgical intervention.  Likewise, ingesting a high volume of small indigestible matter, such as the artificial snow, may also cause an intestinal blockage.

Many Christmas plants are toxic if ingested.  Thus, place mistletoe, poinsettias, holly, and potpourri where they are inaccessible to your dog/cat.  Similarly, glues used to attach ornaments can be toxic if licked, swallowed, or inhaled.  Therefore, just in case, place any ornament attached by an adhesive high enough so that it is out of reach of your dog.

In addition, candles present an obvious risk.  To avoid burn injuries or a house fire, dog households should place candles where they are inaccessible and cat households should only light candles when owners can adequately supervise the cat.

Cats love to bat moving objects with their front paws.  Therefore, to avoid lacerations from broken glass, cat households should use non-breakable ornaments.  In addition, sharp hooks on ornaments pose a risk to climbing cats or to either dogs or cats if the ornament falls to the ground.  So, inspect ornaments carefully for safety before attaching them to your tree.

When placing the tree on the floor, use a secure metal stand that would require a Herculean effort to topple.  Moreover, underneath the tree, don’t use a mat or use a heavy rubber mat that a dog is less likely to chew or grab and pull than would be the case with a rug fragment or blanket.

Tree needles from natural or artificial trees and wire from artificial trees if ingested may pose a toxic risk or a risk of causing internal lacerations.  To minimize this hazard, inspect the tree area regularly and sweep or vacuum potentially dangerous items that fall from the tree.  Likewise the water in the tree stand may contain undesirable bacteria or toxic chemicals from preservatives, coloring, insecticides, or flame-retardants.  Therefore, change the water regularly and/or cover the top of the stand to prevent access by your dog/cat.

Furthermore, electrical cords pose a risk of causing shock or burns.  Similarly, ornamental lights may pose a risk of causing burns or lacerations

Gifts can also be intriguing.  Both cats and dogs like to investigate anything new in the house.  Consequently, to reduce curiosity and enhance safety, keep dog treats and chew items, human food items, food decorations, and potentially toxic or dangerous gifts in a closet until Christmas morning.  In addition, avoid wrapping gifts with long, thin pliable materials, such as ribbon, yarn, or string.

Following the above guidelines to create a safe tree is the first step.  The second step is teaching your dog/cat to stay away from the tree.  Here, we have multiple suggestions.

  1. Use closed doors and/or baby gates to keep your dog/cat away from the room containing the tree when you are unable to supervise.
  2. Spend more quality time with your dog and/or cat.  Quality proactive stimulation may consist of walks (even cats can be walked with a harness and leash), rigorous exercise, obedience training (even cats can learn behaviors and tricks with positive reinforcement training), and play.  By stimulating him preemptively and constructively, your dog/cat will less likely need to explore the tree out of boredom or curiosity.
  3. Provide alternative chew items and play toys for your dog/cat.  For your dog:  sterilized bones, antlers, rawhides, Nylabones, Gumabones, Kongs, rope toys, stuffed animals, squeaky toys, Buster Cubes, tennis balls, and/or soccer balls.  For your cat:  tall tree stands with enclosures, a large paper bag, tunnels, a sisal scratching post, catnip spray, catnip toys, balled aluminum foil, chase/bat wands, toy mice, balls, and/or a Crazy Circle.
  4. Teach a “Leave It” command to your dog while he is supervised an on-leash.  Punish him with a harsh verbal Leave It command and a leash correction when he approaches the tree.  Conversely, reward him with effervescent praise, “Good Leave It” and a treat when he ignores the tree.
  5. If the above preventive and positive, quality of life approaches are insufficient, then consider including a strategy of aversive conditioning.  Use a water gun or air horn when your dog/cat begins investigating the tree.  A properly timed and consistently applied aversive should coax your dog/cat to associate the onset of a negative stimulus when he/she approaches the tree, which in turn should extinguish further exploratory behavior directed toward the tree.
  6. Place non-toxic dog/cat repellent alongside the tree.
  7. If Strategies A through F are insufficient, then consider passive devices that punish the dog/cat anytime he/she approaches the tree.  Two alternatives are a ScatMat and an indoor boundary containment system.  The ScatMat provides an electrostatic output when the dog/cat steps on the mat.  You will need to buy a ScatMat or multiple ScatMats large enough to surround the tree.  The indoor boundary containment system is similar to an outdoor invisible fence.  There are two types.  With the first type, your dog/cat would wear a radio collar that would emit an electronic output anytime the dog/cat crossed a wire connected to a receiver plugged into the wall.  With the second type you would place a base station transmitter by the tree and select a field diameter.  The dog/cat would wear a radio collar that would emit an electronic output anytime the dog/cat came within the field diameter.

Please note that we only recommend Strategy G as a last resort, as there can be several unintended behavioral complications when implementing Strategy G, especially when the animal is generally anxious or prone to developing phobic or aggressive behavior.  Therefore, only consider Strategy G when confinement and supervision are unfeasible, Strategies B through F are unsuccessful, and your dog/cat still encounters a safety risk.

Nevertheless, by taking proper preventive measures and implementing proper training protocols, you and your pets should experience a happy and healthy Holiday season.

© Copyright Mark Spivak and Comprehensive Pet Therapy, Inc., November 2010, All rights reserved.