Trimming the tree is one of those essential Christmas traditions that makes the holiday season so special. Unfortunately, dogs and Christmas trees are not always the best—or safest—combination.
“Depending on the size of the tree and the weight of a dog, a tree can get knocked over on the dog,” says Arden Moore, founder of The Pet Health and Safety Coach in Dallas, Texas. “There could be a limb injury, sprain or a fracture. If you have a little Shih Tzu and an 8-foot tree, who’s going to win?”
And it's not just the tree itself, but all the breakable ornaments, gifts and even the water that can pose a risk to dogs, according to vets and pet safety experts. So what's a pet parent to do?
Keep the magic in Christmas by dog-proofing the Christmas tree with dog-friendly decorations and by using physical barriers and training cues to keep your dog away from the Christmas tree.
Consider an Artificial Tree
“I don’t think there’s a specific type of tree that’s more safe or less,” says Jason Nicholas, BVetMed (Hons), president and chief medical officer of The Preventive Vet in Portland, Oregon, an author, educator and former ER vet. “You can make the case that an artificial tree is safer, because they’re not going to drop needles, and they don’t need the water in the base.”
A dog who ingests fallen needles is at risk for “digestive punctures,” and chemicals added to tree water can prove “lethal” to pets, he says. If you do opt for a live tree, be sure to keep it well-watered to prevent the needles from falling off—but skip the additives, Dr. Nicholas advises. A decorative Christmas tree stand cover can block access to the water completely and add some style to your setup.
Stabilize the Tree
No matter what type of tree you choose, make sure it is stable enough so your dog can’t accidentally knock it over.
“You want to make sure you have a really sturdy tree base, so it isn’t leaning,” Dr. Nicholas says. “You could further secure it by tying it to the wall, or the ceiling … or even use your furniture to your advantage. If you have a bigger dog, you can sort of put the tree behind the couch in a little corner.”
Section Off the Space
Even if you don’t want to tuck your tree behind the sofa, you have options for keeping a dog away from the Christmas tree:
- Use a free-standing dog fence or gate to prevent access to the tree. Moore recommends using one with vertical slats, rather than horizontal so your dog can't climb over it.
- Close off the entire room with a pet gate or by keeping the door closed (if available).
Some options to consider:
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Train Your Dog to Stay Away from the Tree
Francine Coughlin, CPDT-KA, IAABC, a dog trainer and behavior consultant who founded Bark N Roll in Reading, Massachusetts, recommends teaching a “place cue,” essentially training the dogs to go to a certain spot or mat when asked, even with the enormous distraction of a “giant blinking tree in your living room.”
“You would teach them to go do a down, stay—go to your place,” she says. Learn how to do that here.
Coughlin also allows the dogs to initially “check it out” and sniff the tree.
“I don’t want to punish them for being exploratory, but I want to call them away before they try to jump at the tree or tear apart the gifts,” she says.
Use Dog-Safe Tree Decorations
So, what are the best decorations for a dog proof Christmas tree? The answer can vary, depending on each individual dog.
“You’ll know what your dog’s kryptonite is. You might need to forgo certain types of decorations,” Coughlin says. “It’s their home, too, so I would take that into consideration when decorating my tree.”
Here are some common Christmas tree decorations to avoid and safer alternatives recommended by our experts:
Decorations to Avoid
- Anything edible, especially chocolate or candy that contains the sugar substitute xylitol—both of which are toxic to dogs.
- Metal hooks
- Strings of popcorn (the string, if swallowed, can cause severe intestine issues)
- Salt dough ornaments (which can cause salt poisoning in dogs)
- Plush ornaments
- Plastic ornaments
- Plastic hooks
- Twist ties (for hanging ornaments)
- Christmas cards
Delay Placing Gifts Around the Christmas Tree
Experts agree: Don’t set the gifts out until the last minute.
“I don’t put any presents under the tree until Christmas Eve or Christmas morning—that’s just way too tempting for my crew,” says Coughlin, who shares her home with several dogs. “I keep them completely out of reach.”
Keeping gifts hidden will save not only the presents but potentially also your pet’s life.
“Dogs can out-smell us,” says Arden, “so if your aunt left you a fruit cake or there’s that box of chocolate that you don’t know about, your dog knows it’s there.”
Don’t forget cleanup, too, reminds Dr. Nicholas. The remains of the unwrapping frenzy, from ribbons, ties and even wrapped treats, could wind up as a blockage or other intestinal disaster. Have someone come through with a trash bag to collect the debris, he says.
The Bottom Line
No one wants to zap the fun out of the holidays, but taking a few preventative steps to create a dog-proof Christmas tree might end up saving the season.
“I love the holidays and my pets love the holidays,” Moore says. “I just want to make sure we’re not spending it at the pet ER.”
In some cases, that might mean skipping the Christmas tree altogether, especially if you have a new puppy or a particularly energetic dog, she adds.
“Do you want to end up at the pet emergency clinic because your dog has a cut paw or cuts to the mouth, or was drinking the water out of the tree stand, which can be deadly,” Moore says. “We have enough stress for the holidays. Why add to it?”
Get more tips on how to have a safe and happy holiday: