Image via iStock.com/suemack
By Dr. Sandra Mitchell
It is Christmastime, and the clinic is decked out with seasonal decorations, Christmas cards are displayed on the walls, and carols are playing in the waiting room. However, one couple that’s waiting looks anything but happy, and their cat looks downright depressed. Socks was a 12-week-old kitten who had been vomiting for several days and was then lethargic and unable to keep even water down. Socks had indeed eaten some tinsel which had become stuck throughout his intestinal track.
Sadly, this is a very common holiday experience for most veterinarians. Cats and dogs—particularly younger animals—are inquisitive, and the holiday season brings all kinds of new things into the household, from trees and decorations to packaging and new foods. All of these have their own inherent dangers, but none are as common of a pet safety risk as tinsel.
What Is Tinsel?
Tinsel refers to the strands of shiny plastic or metallic decorations that mimic bits of ice that many of us love to use on our trees and wreaths. Sometimes it comes as individual strands, and other times, it comes in longer ropes.
Silver used to be the “standard” color, but in recent years, gold, blue, red and green tinsel has become increasingly popular. These strands are difficult to chew and do not break down in the intestinal tract. They are surprisingly strong and can become lodged in places such as under the tongue or within the stomach or intestine.
How Is This Dangerous?
Tinsel is incredibly dangerous to both dogs and cats—as well as other household pets who might see fit to play with it. Often, the animal starts out playing with the shiny tinsel, which shimmers and moves with the lightest touch.
This exploration then involves the mouth—and then the animal winds up actually eating it. For some, it will head down the “wrong pipe”—causing them to choke and cough. With luck, they are able to actually cough it up and out—eliminating the problem. For others, though, the tinsel is actually swallowed and heads down into the intestinal tract.
What If Your Pet Swallows Tinsel?
So, what happens after it is swallowed? If we are really lucky, nothing—and your pet simply has some shiny poop a few days later. However, if the tinsel gets hung up anywhere along the way—under the tongue, balled up within the stomach, or strung out in the intestinal tract—we have a problem, Houston.
This is a situation referred to by veterinarians as a “foreign body”—something stuck in the intestinal tract that doesn’t belong there. Many times, this triggers vomiting and a reduced appetite. Because it can occur a few hours to a few days after the tinsel was ingested, owners often no longer remember what the pet ate that may be causing a problem. Once the tinsel has been swallowed, we really don’t have a lot of choice except to wait and watch for any signs of illness. Some animals will only have mild signs, making the owners thing that she just ate something that didn’t sit quite right. Other pets will be markedly ill.
My Pet Is Sick. Now What?
The sooner we see your pet after they have become ill, the better we can help—so don’t waste any time if you think your animal may have eaten tinsel.
Once they are showing signs of illness, we will usually do some testing, including an exam, radiographs and sometimes an ultrasound. If we confirm or strongly suspect a foreign body, most times, surgery is required.
Our goal is to go in and find and remove the tinsel as quickly as possible, before it can cause more mischief—and repair any damage that it did while moving through the intestines, which sometimes can be quite severe.
How Do I Keep My Pet Safe?
The whole process of removing tinsel sounds horrible—how do you prevent this from happening to your pet? Personally, I simply do not include tinsel in my Christmas decorations. My animals are not able to eat something that isn’t even in my house.
However, if this decoration is an important part of your holiday rituals, consider using the rope-like tinsel, which is harder for the animals to eat in any quantity. Placing any tinsel you use—whether the rope form or the strand form—up quite high and out of the reach of your pets is helpful.
Keep in mind that cats will enjoy climbing the Christmas tree, so you may not even be able to place it high enough in the tree to avoid those curious paws!
So, what happened with Socks, the sick kitten at the start of our story? After an extensive surgery, tinsel was removed from his stomach and three different places in his intestine. Fortunately, however, he was able to make a full recovery and was back home with his owners in time to celebrate the New Year!