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Keep the fur from flying during the holidays

During the holidays, kittens can fall into Christmas stockings, dogs can knock over a beautifully decorated 12-foot blue spruce and pets can nibble toxic plants.  Here are some tips to help you and your furry friends survive the chaos of the holidays.
Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC

When Karen Clark gets up on December mornings, she knows exactly what her four cats have been doing during the night. Her clues? The glitter on their faces and stray Christmas ornaments she finds in her Paron, Ark., kitchen.

Christmas trees, brightly wrapped packages and decorations such as stockings and tinsel offer an irresistible, but sometimes dangerous, invitation to cats and dogs.

Kittens may fall into Christmas stockings, dogs have been known to knock over a beautifully decorated 12-foot blue spruce and pets can nibble toxic plants and get into chocolate or other rich foods. Add the hordes of holiday guests trooping in and out of the house and you could have a recipe for disaster — or, at the very least, bad behavior on the part of your pet. To help you and your furry friends cope, here are some tips for surviving the chaos of the holidays:

Watch out for pretty, but poisonous, plants
Animals, particularly cats, can be unflagging in their attempts to munch on plants. Dusty Rainbolt, a Turkish Van owner and author of "Kittens for Dummies," learned that the hard way.

When the Lewisville, Texas, woman received a Christmas arrangement of lilies, she knew they were poisonous and set them on the kitchen counter, certain they were out of reach of her foster kitten, Oliver.

“Of course, the day we got the lilies was the day he figured out how to get up there,” she says. “I looked over and he had a mouthful of lily.”

Oliver required 72 hours of hospitalization and IV fluids to flush his kidneys and keep them functioning until the toxic substance was out of his body.

Lilies aren't the only holiday plant with a bad reputation. Poinsettias are often thought to be poisonous, but they're merely irritating. That doesn't mean it's OK for your dog or cat to eat them. Use artificial ones instead.

A product called a Scat Mat can protect your tree from your pet and vice versa. “When they step on it, it gives the animal the equivalent of a carpet shock. It's not inhumane at all, but it's enough to stop most animals,” says Patricia McConnell, an animal behaviorist and author of "For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotions in You and Your Best Friend."

Remove temptation
Did you use twine to tie up the turkey legs? There's a good chance your pet will dig it out of the trash and eat it. Get a box of chocolates as a gift? Your pet will eat them. Have a package under the tree decorated with ribbon or yarn? Your pet will play with it or eat it. Avoid a trip to the emergency room by placing all of these things out of reach.

Cats have spiky tongues, so they can't spit things out. And once string or tinsel is down the throat, it's out of your hands, so to speak. Don't try to pull it out of his mouth — or his rear end. You could severely damage his insides. Take him to the veterinarian immediately.

Be a good guest
Ask about house rules for pets and follow them. If the dog's owners don't allow him to eat table scraps or jump on on them, don't encourage that behavior either.

“People may have been trying to teach good habits for months and months, and you can destroy all that in a couple of days,” says McConnell.

Animals have their own rules about personal interactions. Cats, for instance, like to be the ones to initiate contact.

“This is why people with allergies — who are avoiding cats — often say that cats want to be on their lap,” says Dilara Parry, cat behavior and socialization program coordinator for the San Francisco SPCA. “People who don't actively initiate contact are seen as 'safer.' ”

Speak in soft tones and offer your hand to a pet to sniff. If you don't know a cat well, don't pick it up or try to pet its belly. That's just asking to be scratched. When cats are hiding under furniture, let them be.

“These rules are especially important for young kids,” Parry says. “Many cats are not accustomed to children, who may seem almost like a different species to them with their erratic movements and higher pitched voices. Even if you tell your kids the 'cat rules,' make sure to supervise them. They may forget your advice when faced with the temptation of a fuzzy kitty.”

Give your pet a safe room
Provide a quiet place where your pet can retreat from the chaos. This can be a bedroom or a home office — any place that your cat or dog is comfortable staying for long periods.

“If your cat never goes in the garage, that won't be a great place to confine her,” Parry says.

Shy animals may prefer to stay in their safe room, but even dogs and cats who are social butterflies can benefit from a break as well.

“Even if they are outgoing, some cats can get overstimulated from too much handling and require a timeout,” Parry says.

McConnell has trained her four dogs, including the 5-month-old puppy, to go to her study on command.

“I can give them a treat, shut the door, and have them be very comfortable in there for hours,” she says. “Whether it's a crate or an exercise pen or a room, it's great to be able to separate dogs and visitors for even short periods of time. That can go a long way toward keeping everybody's tempers, including the dog's, under control.”

Remember to relax
The best way to enjoy the holidays is to pet-proof your décor and then relax. Clark and her husband, Brad, don't put tinsel on their tree that might tempt their cats, but don't mind if they play with the ornaments.

"I hear the ornaments drop and then hear them being rolled down the hall at night," she says. "The cats know to play when we're asleep. That way, we can't pin the blame on any one of them."

Last week, she awoke to a thud. One of her snowman stocking holders had fallen off the mantel onto the floor.

"The cats have sworn he jumped," she says, "but I think he was pushed. I guess I'll never know."

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.

Creature Comforts appears the third Monday of every month.