Though movies have always depicted a family pet's Christmas-tree antics as comical, there really isn't a lot to laugh about. Chewed wires can cause fires or electrocutions; precious decorations can break and cut paws or human feet; swallowed pine needles are dangerous for Fluffy and Rover; tinsel tempts tabbies but is a choking hazard; and toppled trees can bring your whole holiday crashing down on top of furniture and pets.
So what can you do to enjoy the traditional Christmas tree and decorations while avoiding expensive veterinarian and household-repair bills?
Begin by choosing the tree. Real trees with sharp pine needles can pierce or irritate the pet's if they get caught in the pet's fur coat. Also, as the tree dries out, pine needles can fall to the floor, and pets may be tempted to chew and swallow the needles, which are slightly toxic and irritating in the gullet. Obviously, in order to keep a real tree moist you need to keep it in water, which presents another potential source of trouble: To thirsty pets, a tree's water dish might seem inviting. If you are purchasing an artificial tree make sure that the contents are not toxic to animals (read the packaging). Choose a tree that can safely stand far enough away from any furniture that a cat could launch from, and look for trees that can be secured to the wall or ceiling. Tabletop trees may provide less temptation to a curious cat or dog, but they still need to have a solid base or mount to prevent toppling.
Putting an undecorated tree in place for a few days before adding decorations can be a way to let your fur-babies get used to it without too many jangling pieces stimulating their interest. Keep a spray bottle filled with water nearby, and if your kitty gets too close, use a light spritz and a firm "no" to deter her.
When you do decorate, try to hang any enticing and fragile ornaments higher on the tree and out of paws' reach. If possible, secure them to the tree with hooks that tighten around the branch. And consider using your one-of-a-kind heirloom ornaments in other holiday displays, or at least place them very high on the tree and take extra care to secure them. When buying new ornaments, opt for non-fragile materials.
Don't use real candles, which are especially dangerous around a swatting paw. Tinsel and artificial snow are dangerous enticements to chew and swallow, and both are perilous to cats and dogs; tinsel can actually become wound around a cat's intestines and require emergency surgery. Be sure that strands of electric lights are secured to the tree, and use a piece of electrical or duct tape to secure the plug to the wall; never leave your tree lit without adult supervision in the vicinity. While it may be fun to decorate the tree with edibles, the scents may attract a pet, and some foods, such as chocolate, are toxic for dogs and cats. And do not place your kitty or puppy treats and catnip toys under the tree with the rest of the presents until the very last moments.
A few more tips for holiday safety: Holiday parties can be delightful, but the crowds can prove frightful for a skittish cat or nervous puppy. Make sure you allow them a safe place to escape the crowds or even confine them to a separate room or a kennel that they are used to. Watch the door as it opens when your guests arrive, and make sure your pet doesn't get spooked and run out. Ask your guests not to feed your fur babies any table food or alcohol. Use a pleasant citrus spray in areas where you want to deter your pet. Keep your vet's number or the number of an emergency treatment center phone handy just in case something goes awry. The ASPCA Poison Control Hotline is 888-426-4435.