There are many potential dangers to cats at Christmas time, from food which can harm them to common indoor plants. One potential risk to cats is tinsel which most homes use to decorate their Christmas tree. Tinsel comes in two types, the garland tinsel and the long strands of tinsel (known as angel hair or lametta tinsel.
How is angel hair/lametta tinsel dangerous to cats?
I remember as a child, one of our cats had ingested some of this tinsel and we all found it amusing when it came out of the cat via the feces. If only we had known how much potential danger our cat had been in, it would not have been so funny. The long strands of angel hair/lametta tinsel can lead to a life-threatening condition known as intussusception (pronounced in-tuh-suh-sep-shun) or telescoping of the intestines.
When a linear foreign body (a foreign body that is long and thin, such as a piece of wool, ribbon, dental floss, string, carpet, pantyhose, sewing thread, or in this case, tinsel) is ingested, one part of it can become lodged, often at the base of the tongue, the esophagus or the opening of the stomach (pylorus), which acts as an anchor. The other part is propelled along the GI tract by peristalsis, which is the wave-like contraction of the GI tract to push food along until it becomes taut. The GI tract below the lodged tinsel will creep up the trailing part of the tinsel and become plicated (folded).
The long thread can cut into the bunched up intestines leading to life-threatening peritonitis (Inflammation of the membrane which lines the abdominal wall and covers the abdominal organs) or cutting off blood supply which causes the tissue to die.
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of appetite (anorexia)
- Pawing at the mouth
The veterinarian will perform a physical examination on the cat and obtain a medical history from you. During the examination, the veterinarian may be able to feel the accordion-like plicated intestines.
Baseline tests such as biochemical profile, complete blood count and urinalysis to evaluate the overall health of the cat and to rule out other causes of vomiting.
An x-ray may or may not show the tinsel, but can reveal bunching up of the intestines as well as abnormal gas patterns.
If an x-ray is inconclusive the veterinarian may perform an ultrasound, which provides a 3-dimensional view of the intestines. This can help to evaluate the location and the length of the foreign body and evaluate the intestines.
Barium contrast study to look for telescoping of the intestines. This involves feeding barium to your cat which coats the lining of the intestines, then performing an x-ray.
If the tinsel is wrapped around the tongue, the veterinarian may opt to snip it and monitor the cat in a hospital setting to see if it passes out of the cat. This obviously avoids surgery but comes with risks.
Surgery (enterotomy) to remove the tinsel involves placing the cat under general anesthesia and making one or several incisions in the abdomen to carefully remove it.
If any tissue has been damaged or died, surgical resection will be necessary to remove the affected tissue.
The cat will be closely monitored in hospital post-surgery. Intravenous fluids, antibiotics, and painkillers will be administered during this time. Most cats will be well enough to go home 24-72 hours after surgery.
How is tinsel dangerous to cats?
Tinsel can potentially cause a gastrointestinal obstruction if enough is ingested and becomes wider than the gastrointestinal tract.
A gastrointestinal obstruction can develop anywhere from the stomach (gastro) to the small or large intestine. They can be partial or complete. If a full blockage develops, food, water, and gastric juices build up behind the obstruction which can eventually rupture. The blockage can also cut off blood supply, causing tissue to die.
- Vomiting, if the blockage is high up, vomiting will occur shortly after eating
- Diarrhea may occur if the blockage is partial or a complete absence of defecation
- Swollen, bloated abdomen
- Abdominal pain
- Anorexia (loss of appetite)
- Weight loss
- Hunched over position
X-ray or ultrasound may reveal foreign bodies, hairballs or tumours.
Endoscopy – A thin plastic tube with a light and camera at the end is inserted into the mouth and into the stomach to look for the presence of foreign objects, hairballs or tumours. In some cases, if a foreign body is found, it may be able to be removed at this time. Tissue samples may be taken during endoscopy.
If the tinsel blockage is small, and the cat appears otherwise well, the veterinarian may decide to wait for 48 hours to see if it passes.
Most cases of gastrointestinal obstruction will require removal via endoscope or surgery which will be performed under general anesthesia.
After surgery, the cat will remain hospitalised and will receive fluids, antibiotics, and painkillers. Most cats will make a fast recovery and be able to return home within 24-72 hours.
As you can see, the complications can be serious for cats who ingest tinsel. It is our recommendation to avoid the use of these decorations in homes with cats or place it high up where the cat can’t access it.