Why your cat is obsessed with destroying your Christmas tree — and how to make them stop

When the tree goes up, many cats can't stop batting at the branches and ornaments. Here's how to call a truce

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 18, 2022 7:30PM (EST)

Christmas Cat (Getty Images/Roy Morsch)
Christmas Cat (Getty Images/Roy Morsch)

It's the biggest, most chaotic battle of the season. Who will emerge undefeated this year — your cats, or your holiday spirit?

Maybe it's because we are all — human and otherwise — already on our last good nerve this year. In the weeks since Thanksgiving, there has been a marked uptick in the news and on social media around keeping our cats from destroying everything in their paths as we round the final lap of 2022. Suddenly, my Reddit feed is full of images of brightly bedecked trees surrounded by high walled fencing, and defiant-looking kittens triumphantly burrowed in pine branches, broken glass strewn at their furry feet. My friends are sharing stories of their cats trying to eat things they shouldn't eat. In my building, I can hear the wails of neighbors' cats miserably freaking out over a constant stream of doorbells and visitors.

We all want a season that's more ho-ho-ho than hairball. So how do we get through this time of year with everybody's sanity, and decorations, intact? 

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First, we have to get inside the minds of our cats. Our relationship with felines is embedded in our humanity. Cats have been knocking stuff off our tables and shredding up our belongings since the dawn of civilization, forever asserting their territoriality by behaving, as Salon's Troy Farah recently wrote, "more like demanding roommates than pets." It's safe to assume that five minutes after the first family lit the first menorah or put the first candles in the first tree, a cat showed up to try to burn down the entire village.

If your cat is more high-maintenance than usual this time of year, it's because disruption puts them on edge — as it does for humans, too. As founder of Floofmania Tommy Wilde notes, "Cats are extreme creatures of habit. You might have noticed that they get confused and sometimes a little upset when you change your decor or move your furniture around. What's even worse is bringing a tree inside your living room (and you can't really blame the cat for finding that odd)." 

Not just odd, though, it's all also fascinating — and more than a little wild.

"A Christmas tree has a lot of really interesting outdoor smells," explains Mikel Maria Delgado, PhD, a Sacramento animal behaviorist and cat behavior consultant. "For many cats, it's probably the most interesting thing that they can climb in the house, because not enough people provide their cat climbing structures. So you're competing with something very exciting, smells good, can be climbed, has outdoor odor smells, and is novel." 

Patrik Holmboe, head veterinarian for the Dutch veterinary telemedicine provider Cooper Pet Care, concurs. "Outdoors, cats are able to express a variety of natural behaviors. These include climbing trees and structures, and hunting and stalking prey," he says. "Many owners simply do not have the time to dedicate to providing adequate mental stimulation for their cat. For a cat that's evolved to chase mice and other small creatures, a toy mouse simply lying out in the open just doesn't cut it. Overall, it is safe to say that many indoor cats are basically bored, and are not given adequate opportunities to practice their natural behaviors. Now enters the Christmas tree. All of a sudden, there is a new and exciting structure in the house. This isn't even taking the ornaments into consideration. With the ornaments, there is now all of a sudden an influx of new dangling, shiny and fun things to explore and play with." Can you blame your cat for going bonkers?

But all of those intriguing new elements can be frustratingly fragile, and dangerous to your pet. Here's what to look out for.

Edible risks

Owen Redford, founder of Things To Do, recommends, "Avoid having amaryllis, daffodils, hyacinths, iris, mistletoe, holly, and all kinds of lilies, because these are all dangerous to your cats. Poinsettias are less dangerous, but these can cause an upset stomach and vomiting in cats." But be aware of less obvious threats to their delicate systems too. Paola Cuevas, a veterinarian and behaviorist with Excited Cats, adds, "Even if your friends and family offer only cat-safe foods, excessive ingestion of food can easily turn into gastrointestinal issues. It is very important that everyone knows and understands that feeding the cats from their plate puts their health at great risk. It is safer to make the clear rule and announcement that the cat or dog should not be fed by anyone, making special emphasis on explaining that bones and leftovers should not be fed either." 


Cuevas also advises common sense awareness of your environment. "Avoid unprotected cords and shiny lights, tinsel, crystal or glass decorations such as spheres, candles, or other fire hazards, unattended foods, or chocolates," she says. "Make sure that any decoration or ornament used is safe and does not represent a choking or injury hazard to your cat. After opening presents, make sure there is no wrapping paper or ribbons left laying around." And if your cat is especially tenacious about attacking the tree, she suggests "adding chicken wire or clear panels to barricade the tree to make it unreachable for your cat. Another option would be to make sure you use only cat-safe decorations such as citrus peels instead of shiny tinsel strands, which are a huge hazard for cats." 

Don't underestimate the power of diversion. Says Mikel Maria Delgado, "If you do not provide your cat with things to climb, scratch and play with year-round, then you should start there. If you have a cat tree, that's something that your cat is using on a regular basis, so the holiday tree is not going to be quite as exciting." Then, she says, "There are safety measures that you want to take with a holiday tree. Securing it to the wall is a good one, so your cat doesn't knock it over. Limit the type of decorations that you put on it — nothing breakable, nothing that could injure your cat, keeping in mind things that they might swallow and get sick from eating. Tinsel can be problematic. Strings can be problematic. Cover the bottom of the tree so they can't drink the tree water."

But you also need to let a cat be a cat. "A lot of it really does come down to making sure that your cat has other fun things in their environment that they can get praise and attention for using," says Delgado. "When they are using their cat tree and climbing it, give them treats, give them attention. Put it in the window so they can sit in the sun or look out at the street and watch birds. You really want to make the things you want them to do much more exciting and rewarding than the things you don't want them to do."


Finally, just be sensitive to your cat's moods. Chyrle Bonk, a veterinarian with the pet furniture company Hepper, says, "Some cats don't like a crowd and may choose to hide during your holiday dinner. Be sure to outfit their hiding spots with water and a comfy bed to reduce stress. You may also want to move their food bowl and litter box there if it's not there already."

And be patient. Your cats may look at you with steely intensity of master criminals, but they're probably not actively trying to make your life harder here. "You know, your cat has a brain the size of a shelled walnut," Mikel Maria Delgado reminds. "They're not really thinking, 'If I jump up on that and knock it over, it might break.' They're like, "Ooh, that looks fun and exciting. I want to jump up there.' You're the grown-up. It's your responsibility to make the environment safe."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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