Help pets and Christmas decorations live together in harmony

I was raised with cats and my grandparents, at one point, had seven cat companions. Not a one ever bothered the Christmas tree. I guess this was a little unusual, as I am getting questions about keeping enthusiastic pets from destroying the holiday decorations.

Living with house rabbits has actually given me a good perspective on this. In our house, holiday decorations are always evaluated for how well they can be pet-proofed. In other words, can cords be safely protected? Are decorations going to be harmful if they are chewed or ingested? Can we find a place for this where it won’t be bothered by our pets?

First, the tree needs a really strong stand. Not one of those inexpensive little metal stands – a big, heavy, weighted tree stand with a solid base is what you’re looking for. Also preferable is a base with very tall sides so critters cannot easily drink from them. Just to be safe, pass on the commercial tree preservative and try a mixture of 7-Up and water instead. At least if that’s ingested, it won’t make your pet badly ill.

Cut the bottom branches away on your tree. You don’t have to go overboard – your tree should still be attractive – but you should be able to see underneath the tree and whether any furry creatures are poking around down there.

Tuck or wrap light strings safely around the trunk and larger branches of the tree and don’t let the cords dangle. Chewers like rabbits, some dogs and young pets of all species are less likely to chew a cord that is tightly against something. Wrap the cord coming from the tree to the outlet with either corrigated cord wrap (if it doesn’t show) or thick, clear plastic tubing if it will be visible. You should never leave your tree lights on when its unattended, but be doubly cautious with pets in the area.

Leave the tinsel off the tree if you’re concerned about your pets. Ingesting a strong, thin material like tinsel could result in it tangling in the stomach or intestines – the end result is emergency (read: expensive) surgery or death. Thin ribbons should also be avoided. Consider a natural garland like strung popcorn or try something trendy this year – leave off the garland and tuck flowers or sparkling branches in the tree at various places.

Glass ornaments are best left off in case the tree does topple. Another hazard from glass ornaments, especially the ball kind, are that animals may try to bite down on them. This can seriously cut a dog’s mouth, and some older ornaments are coated with a powder on the inside that can irritate the mucous membranes. I suggest displaying the glass ornaments on a mantel or as part of a table centerpiece with greens.

Try to think like a pet as you decorate. That fuzzy teddy bear ornament looks a lot like your feline’s catnip mouse – perhaps it should be placed high up on the tree. Anything that dangles or sparkles in the light should be placed closer to human eye level. Heavier, solid, preferably plastic, metal or wood ornaments should be hung near the bottom of the tree.

Choose a tree skirt that will keep the pets away. Something with a crinkly texture, or that makes swishing noise when stepped on, will make cats and dogs uncomfortable. If you don’t have such a tree skirt, put a clear plastic shower curtain liner over yours – it won’t look awful, but it will have that icky slippy texture that pets dislike. You will probably want to wait to put gifts under the tree. My mom did that one year only to wake up the next morning and find small rabbit tooth marks in several boxes. Cats and dogs aren’t immune from wanting to rip or investigate the colorful wrappings either.

What if you just can’t trust your pet to behave with the tree in the house? There are a couple options. You can try hooking the tree to a wall – usually accomplished with a cleverly hidden rope or filiament that’s high enough to be chew-proof, wrapped around the tree in a couple of places.

Also, you can re-think where the tree should be placed. Maybe it would be nicer to have the tree in a room where the pets don’t spend as much time, or you could easily limit your pets’ time in that area. Perhaps a table-top tree – or a couple – could display your decorations without providing the same temptation.

Finally, you can try what one of my bunny-owning friends always does at the holidays. She goes to a home improvement store and buys the plastic latticework pieces, and makes an attractive fence of sorts around the tree. Decorated with greens and pet-safe ornaments, it looks like a great way to set off the tree – not a way to keep the pets away.