Cats are notoriously attracted to almost anything novel—and that includes a newly erected, shining Christmas tree. Just a few minutes of distraction is plenty of time for a cat to launch into a full investigation of the tree and everything on it, and it does not usually end well—for the tree at least!
Luckily, there are some ways to keep the Christmas tree safe from feline claws, but why are cats so attracted to Christmas trees in the first place? It turns out that (like most of humankind’s most perplexing questions) the answer to why cats love “all things Christmas” can be explained by science.
What Science Says About Cats and Christmas Trees
Mike Delgado, a postdoctoral fellow and cat researcher at the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis, explains that anything new being brought into a cat’s familiar territory is sure to get them excited. When cats are in familiar territory, they typically want to investigate anything new. A Christmas tree often has irresistible outdoor smells and bark for a cat to sharpen its claws, so there is plenty to attract them. Dangling, reflective ornaments and shiny tinsel, plus loads of accessible branches, also look like a ton of fun to a cat!
Dr. Lorna Whittemore, a veterinarian at excitedcats.com, agrees. Dr. Whittemore states, “As with humans, all cats are individuals. Some may treat the tree as if it is not worthy of their attention, and others cannot easily be deterred from getting into a tangled mess. Glass baubles, contaminated tree water, twinkling lights, and tempting tinsel are just a few of the potential hazards. The expression of these normal behaviors can, however, land them in trouble.”
“Cats are also naturally inclined to being at a height where they can survey their surroundings and keep out of danger from predators—an indoor tree is often a great temptation for a cat to indulge in this natural behavior,” adds Dr. Whittemore. The instinct of climbing is still alive and well in domesticated cats, and a Christmas tree equipped with plenty of perches and needles is an ideal vantage point and hiding place. The combination of novelty, toys, and a tall structure to climb, makes Christmas trees the perfect “home entertainment system” for felines.
Another ExcitedCats veterinarian, Dr. Paola Cuevas, agrees. “Cats love climbing; it’s ingrained in their nature! They also love stretching and playing with lights and reflections—and a Christmas tree ticks all the boxes.”
If there are multiple cats in the home, they will also quickly clamber to mark this territory as their own by climbing, scratching, and even urinating. As one would expect, this can quickly lead to broken ornaments, snapped branches, and even a toppled tree—all of which can be dangerous to cats.
Preventing Cat and Christmas Tree Issues
Taking proper precautions over the festive season is important, says Dr. Cuevas. “As responsible cat owners, our cat’s safety is always our responsibility. Every time we bring something into their environment, we need to make sure it is safe for our cats. Cats are always investigating, so it is important to think ahead of every possible scenario and make sure that anything we add is non-toxic for our cats.”
Laying tin foil, carpets, or orange peels under the tree may help deter cats, as will commercial deterrent products or sprays or adding clear paneling around the tree. Simply making sure the tree is as stable and well-secured as possible is another good idea. Make sure all electrical wires and lights are covered or out of reach of cats. Cat owners are also urged to avoid using tinsel, ribbons, or string, as these are the riskiest decorations when it comes to choking and ingestion. Dried citrus decorations are great alternatives, as they look great and are a natural deterrent to cats.
Another great idea for cat parents is to opt for artificial trees or tree alternatives so the cat is not attracted to the natural smell and texture of a real tree. With that said, if you do choose to use a real tree this holiday, go for Douglas fir or white pine, as these are the safest for pets. And, of course, keeping the tree in a room not accessible to the cat is likely the safest option of all.