Cats and Tinsel

Linear foreign bodyWe all know the yarn about curiosity killing the cat. However, most of us (myself included) don’t know the genesis of that saying. However, we experience it here nearly once every December.

We all know that cats – and especially kittens – are extremely curious animals. They like to investigate anything new, and don’t seem to be bothered at all by any danger that might be present. And the shinier the bauble, the better.

Which brings us to the dangers of December. Cats are naturally attracted to all the shiny ornaments and lights on Christmas trees. They like to bat at them and watch them jiggle, they like to hear them tinkle, and they particularly like the shiny reflections. This last one makes them particularly interested in tinsel.

Tinsel is one of the favorite Christmas tree decorations for most cats to play with. They like to bat at it, pull it down, and especially to chew on it. Quite often, when they do chew it that leads them to swallowing pieces of it, and this often leads to gastric or intestinal foreign bodies.

Specifically, a foreign body formed by tinsel or garland is termed a string, or linear foreign body. Linear foreign bodies are different from, and more severe than, discrete foreign bodies, such as a marble.

Linear Foreign Body

Linear foreign bodies form when the tinsel (or other linear object, such as yarn or thread) gets wadded up in the stomach, so that it cannot pass into the intestines. While this primary wad of tinsel is anchored in the stomach, slowly an end of it will feed out and start to migrate down the small intestine. Picture an extension cord wadded in a big ball, and then trying to pull one end of the cord free. Eventually it tightens up the ball of cord, and you can’t pull any more cord free.

This is what happens in the cat’s stomach; the wad of tinsel remains anchored in the stomach, while a section of it is being fed down the intestines. As the intestines contract to try to push the tinsel along, it won’t move due to the anchor back in the stomach. Therefore, the intestine starts to bunch up on the tinsel like an accordion. When this happens, the tinsel gets extremely tight from the tension of the intestinal contractions, and can actually saw through the side of the intestine, causing a septic abdomen.

Needless to say, this is an extremely dangerous situation that requires immediate surgery. That’s why linear foreign bodies – such as tinsel – are so much more severe and imminent emergencies than routine discrete foreign bodies.

So be sure to keep you cat or kitten out of the tree, and away from the ornaments. For households with cats we recommend leaving the bottom two feet of tree bare of any decorations to avoid having any foreign body or decorations related problems.

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