Image: Animals acting badly at Christmas
Kim Carney /msnbc.com
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/17/2007 9:39:47 AM ET 2007-12-17T14:39:47

Ho, ho, uh-oh! One of my earliest holiday memories is of our cat climbing the Christmas tree, knocking ornaments off all the way.

Most cat owners have probably had a similar experience. Dogs, too, have their own brand of holiday mischief, such as chewing open the gifts or scarfing down Christmas dinner.

The holiday season offers ample opportunity for pets to show their naughty side, leaving some owners to scramble to save the tree, the trimmings or the turkey.

Retired schoolteacher Joanne Nash of Los Altos, Calif., used to decorate her tree with clay-bake ornaments made from flour, salt and water. “I had made some myself, bought some, and had some that my students had made,” she says. Unfortunately for Nash, her Dalmatians thought the ornaments were delicious dog treats, placed on the tree just for them.

“Stealthy Dalmatians managed to snatch them one by one when we weren’t in the room with the tree,” Nash recalls. “We replaced the consumed ones with a few more the next year, but some invisible dog stole those too, and we haven’t had any clay-bake ornaments since.”

So Nash has adapted her holiday décor to the realities of life with dogs. Because she breeds Dalmatians and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, there’s often a puppy or two in the house during the holidays. Although her high ceilings would permit a large tree, she and her husband limit themselves to a smaller one that can be placed atop an old wooden chest, out of reach of curious puppies.

“Even so,” she says, “we don’t do much decorating of the lower branches.”

An elf in the tree
Kirby, a 12-year-old lilac-point Siamese, likes to climb up in the middle of the tree and peer out at passersby, who are understandably startled to see that pointy elfin face suddenly pop through the branches. Kirby’s also fond of eating holiday greenery, which he then vomits up, much to the dismay of his owner, Connie Holmes of Laguna Niguel, Calif.

Kirby’s sister, a tabby-point Siamese named Jazmyn, enjoys eating the ribbons off boxes, a potentially fatal habit, so packages are now plain at the Holmes household.

But Holmes' approach is to take her cats’ antics in stride. “They love Christmas as much as I do,” she says.

The new owner of 118-pound Keisha, a Saint Bernard puppy, adopted just days before Thanksgiving, is learning some strategies that should help her head off trouble this holiday season.

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“Never turn your back after the tablecloth is on the table, because she’s either on the table or running past it to grab the corner end of great-grandma’s Irish lace and linen to whip it off the table,” says Suzanne Moore of Glide, Ore. As she surfed the Internet for Web sites on repairing antique hand-tatted lace, Moore decided on a new holiday tradition.

“We learned it is much easier and less stressful to give thanks at a table covered with a vinyl tablecloth and set with paper plates that are filled from an improvised buffet on the breakfast bar, which is the only counter high enough that Keisha can’t just sneak by and grab a turkey leg on the run,” Moore says. “And everyone can relax and not worry about gravy and wine stains on a museum-quality tablecloth or fear that someone will chip or break the china. It was a great lesson!”

Some pets don't want to do damage at the holidays; they just want to let us know who’s really in charge. At least, that’s the theory that writer Barbara Florio Graham, of Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, ascribes to the actions of her cat Simon Teakettle, nicknamed Tiki.

Being an experienced cat owner, she collected nonbreakable ornaments for her Christmas tree, among them several sets of crocheted white snowflakes, which she hung on the Norfolk Island pine in her living room.

“Every year, Tiki would watch carefully as I hung these, listen to my admonitions that he was not to touch, and dutifully leave the room,” she says. “And every morning, one single snowflake, its hook still attached, would have been carefully removed from a branch and placed delicately on the rug. It was his way of letting me know who made the actual decisions in the household.”

Creature comfort
Sometimes the accommodations we make for our pets during the holidays benefit us as well as our animals.

“My mother and father are taking care of my 200-pound Neapolitan mastiff, Baby,” says veterinarian Jill Richardson, of Secaucus, N.J. "He loves the Christmas tree so much that they put it up after Halloween and leave it out until Valentine’s Day. He loves to wrap himself around the base of it and sleep. They enjoy this even more than he does because when he’s under the tree, there’s actually room for them to sit on the couch instead of on the floor.”

There’s no doubt that our animals can wreak havoc during the holidays, but I think they simply want to get in on the holiday festivities. My friend Ginny Guidry's golden retriever, Luke, amply demonstrated that last week.

As Ginny and her son Daniel decorated the tree, her husband sat on the sofa, Luke at his side. Luke watched Ginny and Daniel for a few minutes and then did something that astounded everyone.

"He went over to his toy box, opened it up, dug through it, and pulled out the red-and-green toy he’d gotten last Christmas and brought it over to us," Ginny says. "Do you think he remembered and specifically chose that toy?"

I do, but only Luke knows for sure. And he’s not talking.

Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with two Cavalier King Charles spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.

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