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. The tree itself, as well as the surrounding Christmas decorations, can be dangerous and even deadly in some cases, according to vets and pet safety experts.
Of course, we want to share all the wonderfulness of the holiday season with our furry friends. 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 how to keep a dog away from the Christmas tree. The simplest, perhaps, is a pet gate.
A Christmas tree dog fence or gate with vertical slats, like Primetime Petz 360 Configurable Gate with Door, rather than horizontal ones, will be the most effective, says Arden Moore, founder of The Pet Health and Safety Coach in Dallas, Texas.
“Depending on the size of the tree and the weight of a dog, a tree can get knocked over on the dog,” she explains, emphasizing the need to keep dogs away from Christmas trees. “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?”
A Christmas tree dog fence, such as Arf Pets Free-Standing Walk-Through Wood Dog & Cat Gate, can help keep your pet away from both the tree and all the breakable ornaments, gifts and even the water that can pose a risk to dogs, agrees Francine Coughlin, CPDT-KA, IAABC, a dog trainer and behavior consultant who founded Bark N Roll in Reading, Massachusetts. She also suggests keeping an unsupervised dog away from the tree by simply closing the whole room off with a baby or pet gate or closing a door if available.
Train Your Dog to Stay Away from the Tree
Coughlin teaches 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.
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.”
Plushies, for example, might be a safe option, says Dr. Nicholas, or they might just look like a chew toy to your pet.
Plastic ornaments are less breakable, and plastic hooks or twist ties are a good replacement for metal hooks, he says.
Christmas Tree Decorations to Avoid
Dogs and Christmas trees don’t always mix, and the safety hazards don’t end at the tree itself. Plenty of festive décor can be hazardous to dogs, Dr. Nicholas says. These include:
- Anything edible, including chocolate, which is 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)
Candy canes or other items made with xylitol, a sugar substitute, are another hidden holiday danger. “For dogs, it is ridiculously toxic,” Dr. Nicholas says.
Moore suggests decorating with Christmas cards and putting the most fragile and breakable ornaments on display out of dogs’ reach. Christmas lights can cause a host of issues too, including fires and strangulation. Arden suggests coating them with petroleum jelly or a pet deterrent spray to discourage chewers. Fur Goodness Sake’s Anti-Chew Bitter Spray, for example, has a bitter apple taste to deter dogs from chewing and can be use on electrical cords. Fake candles make a festive alternative, she adds.
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.
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?”