For many of us, ’tis the season to be jolly by decorating our homes with lights, wreaths, and holiday plants—namely, a Christmas tree and poinsettias. Pet parents are usually aware that poinsettias and cats don’t mix. But what some people fail to realize is that another common Christmas decoration—tinsel—poses more of a threat to your cat than these festive red plants. Let’s break down the risks associated with each.
Why tinsel is so dangerous
Who are we kidding? Stringy, shiny tinsel looks like a toy to your cat. With it draped all over your Christmas tree, you might worry that the worst thing that could happen is your cat upending the tree in one fell swoop.
Actually, something much worse could occur: Your cat may ingest the tinsel, which can build up into a tangled knot, get stuck in the stomach and intestines, and result in what veterinarians call a linear foreign body.
“What can happen is that part of the tinsel gets wrapped around the base of the tongue, or even stuck in the stomach, while the rest of the string starts slowly passing into the intestines,” explains Justine Lee, DVM. “With the normal contractions of the intestines, the tinsel starts sawing through the tongue, esophagus, stomach, and intestines, resulting in your Christmas bonus going toward your cat’s thousand-dollar emergency surgery.”
Tinsel or string hanging from your cat’s butt – should you pull it?
Veterinarians’ emphatic response is: No—do not pull it yourself! Doing so could actually rupture your cat’s intestines or colon. Instead, get to a veterinarian.
Long pieces of tinsel or string can get stuck at an attachment point inside your cat, which acts as an anchor. (An inch or two of string should easily pass.) This occurs most commonly at the pylorus (the end of the stomach) or the base of the tongue. “If you pull on it, it can plicate the intestines, pulling them all together and even sawing through the thin intestinal lining,” says Dr. Lee. “Perforating the intestinal wall can result in a severe abdominal infection, and often cats don’t survive from this septic peritonitis.”
Tinsel or string hanging from your cat’s mouth – should you pull it?
Again, no. If the string is wrapped around the base of your cat’s tongue, you could cause severe injury. Dr. Lee suggests holding on to a section of the string (without getting bitten or applying any tension) while you frantically find someone to drive you to an emergency clinic. Or, you can carefully tape it to your cat’s collar, just to keep it out of the way as much as possible so your cat doesn’t swallow more.
“Whatever you do, don’t cut the string,” she says. “Vets need to be able to see it.”
Bottom line: Keep all tinsel, string, dental floss, yarn, and ribbon away from your cat! (Unless you are closely supervising.)
Are poinsettias poisonous to cats?
The poinsettia is commonly “hyped” as a poisonous plant. The reality is, a poinsettia is only mildly toxic to cats and dogs. The milky white sap on the leaves actually tastes bitter and irritating to your cat: They may begin to drool almost instantly, pawing at the outside of their mouth and showing signs of oral irritation.
Common symptoms include:
- Licking lips
- Skin irritation (including redness, swelling, and itchiness)
- Eye irritation
Luckily, cats almost always stop chewing on a poinsettia upon its immediate, drool-inducing effects. You generally shouldn’t have to take your cat to the vet if you’ve seen them snacking on your Christmas plant—unless their symptoms become severe.
Of course, we don’t want our furry loved ones to come in contact with toxins of any kind, no matter the severity. So, do your cat a favor by keeping the poinsettia out of reach and supervising when in reach.
Plants that are more toxic to cats
Just because toxicity is exaggerated when it comes to poinsettias and cats doesn’t mean there aren’t Christmas plants or houseplants out there that are toxic to your felines. Consuming mistletoe can cause vomiting, diarrhea, low blood pressure, difficulty breathing, and low heart rate in cats, while holly can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and depression.
Beware of the following common toxic houseplants—even a small dose of these could be lethal:
- Lilies (Lilium and Hemerocallis)
- Azalea and Rhododendron
- Sago Palm
- Castor Bean
- Marijuana (rarely results in death)
It’s also a good idea to understand what human food is safe for cats. The majority of the items on your Christmas feast menu aren't going to be harmful to your feline, but you should be aware that certain foods—such as garlic and onions—are very toxic to cats.
If you have a cat or dog in the house, skip the tinsel (and most of the Christmas plants) this holiday season.