Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We love dogs and cats equally, and reserve treats for questions about your turtle, guinea pig, bird, snake, fish, or other beast.
Dear Beast Mode,
Do you have any tips on keeping a cat off your holiday decorations? I knew I was in for trouble when my 6-month-old kitten’s eyes seemed to light up upon spotting my Christmas tree in the living room. But now I often look over and see the tree moving around as she yanks on the lights, and a few times I caught her halfway up the tree, chilling in the branches.
I’m worried she will get hurt if/when the tree falls over (not to mention, her festive play is quite distracting). I’d rather not break out the squirt gun and don’t want to scare her; she’s a little skittish. Got any more gentle advice to keep us safe and sane through the holidays?
—Too Much Rocking Around the Christmas Tree
Dear Too Much Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,
I’m going to have to side with the Coalition of Obsessed and Antsy Cats for the Holidays, or COACH, on this one. We cut down evergreens, prop them up in our living rooms, hang orbs and lights on the branches, and they’re supposed to be the weird ones when it comes to tree-related behavior?
A Christmas tree is always going to be the center of feline attention. I mean, just look at it standing there so high and green; it’s practically begging to be climbed. (To the humans reading this: Please don’t scale your tannenbaums). “One reason that the tree is so attractive to cats is that it’s novel,” certified animal behaviorist Mikel Delgado tells me. “You’re bringing in smells from the outside, and that’s going to be very intriguing. It’s something they would naturally climb, so you’re setting yourself up for a losing battle.”
One thing you definitely shouldn’t do is spray your kitty with water. It may work as an immediate deterrent, but this just creates more problems in the long run. “You’re potentially hurting your relationship with your cat,” Delgado says, adding that “you’re not addressing the cat’s excitement or motivation to get on the tree.” Cats are clever, and it won’t be long before she realizes she can climb the tree to her heart’s content whenever her human isn’t around to use that dastardly spray gun.
Another important note is that you mustn’t include tinsel or garlands with your decorations. “Those are a big no-no in a house with cats. If they eat it, they will either be pooping tinsel or the tinsel will cause an intestinal blockage, which will lead to a not-so-fun trip to the emergency room and probably surgery.”
The only surefire way to keep your cat off the tree is to keep it in a separate room. If this isn’t possible, you can take other steps to hinder her ascent. “The most humane deterrent in this case is something that has nothing to do with your presence,” Delgado says. “You could put down a tree mat that has double-sided carpet tape on it. It won’t hurt your cat, but it will make it less fun for them to go under the tree, which is probably where they’re going to start their climb.”
Still, there’s no guarantee that tape will totally solve this problem. To ensure everyone’s safety, Delgado recommends affixing the tree to the wall with an eye hook so it won’t tip over.
Trees are tempting, but ornaments are downright seductive, so use plastic ones that won’t shatter if batted from a branch. Keep them higher up on the tree to reduce access. The same goes for string lights, which should be hung tightly and with care. “You minimize the temptation of the dangling,” Delgado says. “You can also use something like bitter apple spray on the entire length of the lights, and that will deter any chewing.”
These are all important steps, but there’s something you should already be doing year-round, and it will help with this holiday-related problem. “Cats enjoy being up high. It makes them feel safe, and they can see what’s going on,” Delgado says. “It’s really important to have other alternatives for cats and kittens in terms of climbing and playing.” Cat trees, cat shelves, and other feline furniture will provide comfortable areas your kitten can access whenever she wants. It won’t totally eliminate her desire to investigate her fragrant new housemate, but you will be able to entice her to these other lofted locations where she knows she’ll get attention and treats. (Just make sure these are far enough away from the tree to prevent any parkourlike leaps.) The novelty of the tree will hopefully wear off, and, with any luck, normalcy will arrive before Santa does.
Not to spoil the festive mood, but I should reiterate that the only guaranteed solution is to keep the cat and tree in separate rooms throughout the holidays. Well, if you’re desperate to keep everyone together, there is one more option Delgado offers: “Maybe they should just get a cat tree and decorate that?”
She was joking, but I kind of like that idea. There won’t be any needles to clean up, and you don’t need to drag it to the curb once January hits. Be advised, though: The angel perched atop this particular tree will have claws.
Looking for a holiday gift for your furry friend? Check out Nick Greene’s guide to the best gifts for cats and dogs.