Q:I'm afraid to put up a Christmas tree, because my cat will attack it. Why do cats destroy Christmas trees? Is this normal?
Yes, it’s normal, but your cat might not be attacking it as much as they’re just excited to climb it and to play with all the shiny things attached to it.
Thanksgiving is in the rear-view, you've bought a handful of gifts for ... um ... yourself, the Christmas tree is finally set up in the living room and you're about to take another box of holiday decorations out of the closet. Next thing you know you’re back at the closet getting the broom and vacuum cleaner out, because roughly 15 seconds after you walked away from the Christmas tree, most of the needles and a handful of ornaments are on the floor––assuming that the entire tree isn't slumped against the wall, too. Why do cats seemingly love to destroy Christmas trees?
Cats and Christmas trees don't always play well together, but that's not because your otherwise wonderful pet has it out for evergreens. Your cat is just extraordinarily curious about this ultra-climbable item that has magically materialized in the living room, according to Marilyn Krieger, a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant (CCBC) and the author of “Naughty No More!”
"I've not seen a cat attack a Christmas tree," she tells beChewy.
"They're definitely very interested in them, and they will play with the tree,” she says. “It's almost too good to be true [for a cat] because it's something to climb, and they have all of these dangling things, so it's something to play with too. But attacking the tree is kind of a new one for me. I do know they'll climb to the top, they'll play with an ornament and knock it off, or their weight will knock the tree over."
Lisa Stemcosky, CCBC, CPDT-KA (Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed), and the owner of Pawlitically Correct cat behavior consulting, agrees. "[A Christmas tree] may be the coolest thing they've seen all year!" she says. "And as cats, they naturally seek out high places to rest and observe. They're also attracted to moving and wiggling things, so the moving and shimmering ornaments can look like prey."
OK, we get it—Christmas trees are like catnip to them. So, how do you keep your cat away from the Christmas tree? Regardless of cats’ motivation for climbing the tree or for knocking a dozen ornaments off the branches, there are two keys to ensuring that you'll spend more time admiring them, and less time reassembling them. The first is to find a way to keep the cat away from the tree, and the second is to find appropriate ways to redirect their attention.
"Whatever you can do to keep them separated, even if it's just as simple as closing a door," Krieger says. "Having said that, I do have a couple of clients who have actually hung their trees from the ceiling. It can be difficult to do, but it's stunning to see––and the cat can't reach them."
Stemcosky recommends putting a physical barrier around the tree (like an exercise pen, for example) to keep curious cats and curious kids away. "Also start the ornaments and lights a few feet off the ground, so they aren't dangling at your cat's eye level," she says. "And tuck your wrapped gifts underneath to prevent your cat from climbing up the tree from the underside." Learn more about cat-proofing your Christmas tree here.
As far as distracting the cat, Krieger recommends interactive toys, ball track toys, or just rolling treats away from the tree, so your kitty is rewarded by not going near it. She also suggests having a cat tree that's at least five feet tall, so your cat has something to climb that doesn't have lights and breakables on it. "Of course, it depends on the individual cat, and the age of the cat too," she says. "As far as kittens are concerned, anything that comes into the house, it's like 'Oh boy, let's check this out!' You have to be especially vigilant about those little guys."
Stemcosky emphasizes that it's best to ensure that your decorations are cat-friendly, just in case they do decide to check them out. "Use unbreakable ornaments in case one is knocked to the floor, non-toxic decorations so if your cat does chew on them they won't get sick, and make sure any live plants and flowers are not poisonous to cats," she added. Learn more about holiday décor dangers and how to avoid them here.
All of this sounds simple, but when have cats ever been simple? Maybe that's something to ask Santa about.