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You don't have to choose between your felines and feeling festive.
One of the most common inquiries I get from folks this time of year is about keeping their cats off the Christmas tree. Many people don't think they can possibly have Christmas (or other holiday... I have a Halloween tree every year!) tree and cats. While some cats it may be more challenging to keep them out of the tree or from nibbling on the branches, if you know what you're doing you can reduce the chances of your cat turning you from Santa to Scrooge with some planning. If these don't help, this is the perfect problem for a quick 30 minute Zoomies session with me to help come up with an individual solution.
Why do cats climb Christmas trees?
First, let's talk about why you cat is trying to climb your tree. We'll get the big one out of the way: No, it's not because they're being spiteful or a little jerk. We as humans tend to anthropomorphize a lot of cat behavior, meaning we attribute human motivations and intentions to behavior, it's easy to assume that your cat may be doing something to get revenge on you for something yesterday. In reality, your cat isn't even thinking of what happened yesterday. There's probably something else going on that better explains the behavior.
With Christmas trees, the explanation for the behavior is pretty easy to find. Cats like being up high because not only is it safer for them, but it allows them to have an advantage when hunting. It's why cat towers are a popular piece of cat furniture and, in some cases, why your cat is going on the counter.
Of course, cat towers don't exist in nature. In their natural environment, cats like to climb rocks or trees. When you bring home a Christmas tree, you are bringing the thing the cat likes to climb into your home even if you get an artificial tree. It only makes sense that your cat would try to climb up to the top!
Keeping Your Cat Off The Tree
Clearly, you're bringing someone very tempting to a cat into your home and it's a natural instinct of theirs to try to climb it. Is all hope lost that you'll be able to have a festive display while you have cats? Not in the least!
The easiest way to keep your cats from the tree is to offer them a more appealing alternative. Namely, a cat tower. A tall cat tower place in a location your cat will use and near the tree will give them a more acceptable choice of place to climb. If you're feeling really fancy, cat shelves are a great year round option that may also help keep your cats off the counters.
Of course, you don't want to make it so your cat can launch themselves onto the tree. Observe your cat at first to see if they are eyeing up the tree from up top and if they are, move the tower a bit further away.
Don't Tempt Them
Part of setting up a holiday tree is decorating it with all sorts of glittery, dangly objects. These objects can be very tempting to cats as they may look like prey or toys. If you use food like popcorn or cookies as decorations, it may even smell like food! Don't tempt your cat into going after the decorations as they don't understand that they are breakable or not for them. The easiest way to do this is to not have food as decorations (get consider plastic or ceramic versions instead) and to not have decorations on the lower branches.
Of course, another source of temptation may be a problem for those with a live Christmas tree. That water under the tree may be tempting for your cat to drink so it's very important you don't add any additives to the water. Even then, you still probably want to keep your cat away. A great strategy is to place boxes or cat beds (such as this cozy cavern that can be converted into a flat bed. If you prefer, there are also festive options like a Christmas tree or Santa hat) at the base of the tree to block the cats from having access to the tree water and the lower branches. You can even wrap a few big, empty boxes to place under the tree. Not only will it block the cats, but it will look nice as well!
Christmas Tree Cat Safety
Besides just the additives in Christmas tree water, there are other potential dangers to your cat to be aware of. Ingesting pine needles can be dangerous and lead to an emergency situation. Make sure your cat isn't chewing on the branches and gently redirect them to a toy if you do catch them chewing. Similarly, tinsel and holiday lights can be extremely dangerous for cats and lead to a medical emergency. For tinsel, you may be best not putting it on the tree at all in case it falls or gets knocked off. For lights, make sure the cords are covered. You can run any extension cords under a rug, behind furniture your cat can't get to, or cover it up using a dedicated cord cover.
If your cat does manage to get to the tree (or makes a really valiant effort and charges it) despite your best efforts, another danger comes from the tree falling over. A falling tree could injury your cat whether it falls with your cat in it or falls onto you cat so you want to make sure your tree is secure. If it seems wobbly, best to either ditch the tree for a new one or add some addition support by securing your tree to a nearby wall.
Prevent Your Cat From Being Bored
What's probably the best way to keep your cat off the tree while benefitting them in other ways? Make sure your cat has something better to do with their time. If they seem to be attracted to chewing on the branches, find a toy that looks similar to the branches to try or grow a bit of cat grass to give them something to nibble on instead. If you catch them eyeing up the tree, start a play session with a favorite toy to lure them away. Give them some treats while they are on an acceptable perch like a nearby cat treat to reinforce them going up there instead. A food puzzle is a great way to turn meal time into a game and keep your cat occupied! There are so many different choices of things you can encourage your cat to do instead of climbing the tree.
Many cats are chronically understimulated. Boredom is the root of a lot of unwanted behaviors, so even beyond the holidays your cat will thank you for the extra fun if you keep up some of these enrichment activities going year round. It doesn't just benefit your cat!
About the author: Joey Lusvardi CCBC is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and cat trainer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He runs a behavior consultation service, Class Act Cats, where he helps cat parents address a variety of unwanted behaviors. He is available for consultation in the Twin Cities or virtually wherever you are located.