10 Ways to Keep Your Pet Safe During the Holidays

Tantalizing treats, tempting scents, laughter, joy, and all-around merrymaking: our pets love this celebratory season as much as we do, or maybe even more. Keeping them unharmed during the holidays, however, falls squarely on human shoulders.

By Nicole Shein | Updated Nov 30, 2021 1:07 PM

Holiday Pet Safety

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Keep the Whole Family Safe

This is a pretty good time to be a pet—or a human who’s invested in the pet industry. These halcyon days for your hound or hamster are among the few silver linings of the pandemic; pet parents have not only been spending more time with their furbabies, but also positively showering them with presents. In fact, 2020 saw Americans spending more than $103 billion-with-a-B on their furry family members.

Now that 2021’s shopping season is upon us, the overwhelming majority—89 percent—of dog owners (and parents to all kinds of animals) are about to plunk down big bucks on treats for our beloved companions. But before you head to the store or start filling your online cart, get informed about holiday items that represent real harm to your pets.

“The holidays are a time when we see an increase in emergencies at our cat hospital,” says Dr. Ashlie Saffire, who is medical director and American Board of Veterinary Practitioners residency advisor at Cats Only Veterinary Clinic in Columbus, OH. “We see injuries that happen when a cat falls out of a Christmas tree, ingestion of foreign material including parts of ornaments, ribbon, and tinsel, and urinary tract obstructions secondary to stress.”

Keep reading for tips on how to avoid emergency-vet visits.

Pick Pet-Safe Plants

Holiday Pet Safety

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Are poinsettias really poisonous to pets? The answer is an unqualified…sorta. If ingested in large enough doses, yes, these traditional Christmas plants could present a serious problem. However, it’s unlikely that a peckish pet would eat enough to do real harm, since poinsettia leaves contain a sap that irritates their digestive tract, causing nausea and vomiting.

More dangerous are mistletoe and holly. Both plants’ leaves and berries contain toxins that could result in intestinal upset, breathing problems, and even death in animals. It’s best to use artificial versions for all your hall-decking and doorway-smooching needs.

Should you receive a potted plant as a holiday gift, take the time to discern what it is and learn whether or not it’s animal-approved.

Go For a Faux Fir

A beautifully trimmed Christmas tree makes a perfect holiday photo backdrop for your pets, especially if they’re patient enough to sport a Santa hat or set of antlers. When the shoot’s over, though, keep a close eye on your models. Real Christmas trees pose a variety of hazards, primarily to dogs: Sharp pine needles can lead to serious internal damage, for example, and natural oils from firs can cause stomach upset. Pre-cut trees can be coated with chemical preservatives that leach into the tree stand’s water reservoir, which happens to look just like your buddy’s water dish.

Cats might not try to snack on your spruce, but they will be tempted to claw or climb a real Christmas tree. To prevent a toppling Tannenbaum, choose the sturdiest stand you can and use fishing line and small eye bolts to anchor your tree to the wall or ceiling.

Forego the Figgy Pudding

Holiday Pet Safety

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If you need a reason to reject (or regift) a fruitcake, here you go: raisins and currants can cause canine kidney failure. (So too can fresh grapes, but those aren’t usually found in baked goods.) You might already know that chocolate and cocoa are verboten for both dogs and cats, as they can trigger symptoms ranging from gastrointestinal issues to heart arrhythmias and seizures, but other candies can also pose a danger if they contain xylitol. This low-calorie sweetener is very toxic to dogs and should be avoided at all costs.

Resist the urge to treat your pet to holiday table scraps, too. Between rich cheeses and dips, well-marbled red meat, and carb-laden buffets, there’s so much to tempt the canine palate. Keep your pup away from the buffet to avoid unhappy tummies and unpleasant messes.

Nix the Tinsel

Cats, like magpies and craft bloggers, seem powerless to resist objects that shimmer, sparkle, glitter, or gleam. When they saunter into the living room to see an enormous scratching post that smells like Outside and also happens to be covered with shiny string, it’s no wonder that their fuzzy little minds get blown.

Cat owners of a certain age who still remember dressing the tree with tinsel can attest to the distressing outcomes that occur when kitties and glitteries collide: for starters, finding that Snowball’s daily litter-box deposits have taken an, er…festive turn.

Of course there are other, even more perilous consequences at play. “Cats love to chew on ribbon,” explains Dr. Saffire. “What makes it so dangerous is that it causes a condition called bowel plication, where the intestines start to bunch up like a coiled telephone cord. It can become a surgical emergency because the plicated bowels lead to loss of blood supply, necrosis of the bowel, and even [bowel perforation].”

Say Goodbye to Glass Ornaments

Holiday Pet Safety

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Batting at anything vaguely ball-shaped is another favorite feline pastime, and it’s easy to imagine what happens when cats try to turn glass tree ornaments into toys. Take precautions to prevent fragile decorations from becoming dangerous shards on the carpet or hardwoods: Consider opting for unbreakable lookalikes, or hanging delicate baubles on the upper branches only.

Pet-Proof Electrics and Electronics

Any items that conduct electricity are potentially hazardous all year ’round, of course, but we tend to use more of them during the holiday season—whether it’s remote-controlled LED strands, whimsical menorah string lights, electronic dancing Santas, or festive projectors.

For safety’s sake, be sure to keep cords tucked well out of the way or enclosed in chew-proof cable covers. Never leave the house while it’s lighting up the night. Don’t overload power strips or charging ports or wall sockets. And although there’s nothing that can lift holiday spirits quite like over-the-top incandescence, tell your inner Clark Griswold to take a chill pill.

Use Caution with Candles

Holiday Pet Safety

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The custom of using lit candles to illuminate a Christmas tree is equal parts quaint and horrifying, much like an automobile glove compartment with a built-in mini bar. Contemporary Christmas lights are safer and much more convenient than attaching burning flames to tree branches, naturally. But lighted candles in menorahs, on the mantelpiece, or amidst a beautiful holiday tablescape are also potential fire hazards—and the risk is only compounded when there are curious paws and wagging tails added to the mix.

“Candles and essential oils are also important to keep away from cats,” says Dr. Saffire. “I have seen incidents where cats will knock over a candle and get burned from being covered in hot wax.”

She also says that essential oils can be dangerous for cats, too, so don’t make any DIY holiday air fresheners or ask Santa for an essential oil diffuser without first doing your homework.

Wise men and women who enjoy animals and ambiance in equal measure can choose flameless candles or flickering-fire LED bulbs for a no-stress lighting solution. Otherwise, keep pillars and tapers well out of reach to prevent singed whiskers—or worse.

Beware Little Animal Lovers 

Holiday Pet Safety

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Even if you’ve pet-proofed everything in your home right down to the last can of Who-hash, there’s one more potential pitfall: little tots with their eyes all aglow. Young children who haven’t encountered many animals in person can pose a danger, even if it’s borne of excitement about petting and playing with the doggy or kitty.

If your fluffy family member is mellow and patient with little ones, or there’s someone on hand to supervise, this interaction can be a heartwarming holiday moment. When you’re hosting a hectic open house, though, or if you’re still working with your puppy or rescue on their social skills, think about sequestering pets for safety’s sake.

“If there are children visiting your home, please supervise their interactions to avoid inappropriate or aggressive play,” advises Dr. Saffire. “Remind young guests that just because a cat is in the room, it may not want to be pet.”

No “Party Animals” Allowed

Even folks who don’t normally partake in adult beverages will often raise a glass of seasonal cheer while celebrating the holidays with friends and family. While neither dogs or cats are interested in the booze itself, they may be tempted by mixers—think sweet or rich add-ins like milk or cream, fruit juice, and sugary soda.

Before you pour, familiarize yourself with the symptoms of alcohol toxicity in dogs, just in case.

And when it’s time to imbibe, consider lidded beverage tumblers—these insulated tumblers are equally perfect for warm mulled wine and a frosty White Russian—to keep your pooch away from your hootch.

Wrap Presents Prudently

Holiday Pet Safety

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Animals don’t understand anticipation. When they smell a gourmet holiday gift basket, candles or bath bombs with appealing aromas, or especially a giant rawhide or tub of catnip, they won’t wait until December 25. If you’ve just settled down for a long winter’s nap, there’s not much to stop a curious feline or ravenous canine from ripping right through the wrapping.

It’s not only what’s on the inside that counts, either. Dyes, metallic foils, adhesives, and ribbon—especially the sharp-edged curling kind—can all pose problems, from poisoning to intestinal obstruction. Consider using pet- (and planet-) friendly alternatives to traditional paper, gift bags, and bows. If you have a dog who loves to dig and chew or a cat with claws to sharpen, don’t place packages under the tree until the very last moment.