This time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is an important time in the world of feline sporting events. All across the country and the world families are erecting decorative cat jungle gyms, which for some unknown reason they stubbornly refer to as "Christmas Trees", and the international feline entropy games begin. In the competition cats are scored on number of takedowns, degree of difficulty, number and quality of ornaments broken, and minor consideration is given for collateral damage incurred as well.
During this season there is a sneaky danger lurking for many cats--tinsel. Although cats are not as commonly prone to ingest non-food items as dogs, there seems to be some appeal to shiny, string-like objects. For many cats tinsel ingestion may not be due to consciously trying to eat the stuff, but more accidental. I watched my cat get a piece of fluff stuck on his tongue while playing with it. He licked the air, flicked his tongue, scraped it on the roof of his mouth, but in the long run he couldn’t get it dislodged until he just swallowed it. Tinsel can be similarly tenacious, whether caught on the tongue during play or perhaps when a cat is grooming off the pieces that clung to him as he passed by the tree in all his staticky fabulousness.
A single piece of tinsel is very unlikely to cause problems. The problem comes when there is a glob if it sitting in the stomach and part of that glob breaks off and travels down the intestine while maintaining a stringy connection to the larger part that is still stuck in the stomach. As the glob on the further part of the string gets wedged further down the intestinal tract it will start bunching up the intestines like an accordion. The connecting string gets stretched very tight and will start sawing holes all along the intestine that is bunched up against it. As you can imagine, holes in intestines are not good.
Surgery is required to save a life at this point, but these cases are often absolute nightmares to try to fix. It is often necessary to remove large stretches of damaged intestine, but some of the more commonly affected areas of the intestine cannot be surgically removed. That leaves us with trying to patch up the damaged areas and crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. Sometimes it works out, but of all the types of foreign body surgeries, string type foreign bodies have the highest fatality rate.
Dealing with the problem before the damage is catastrophic is always best, but it is often not a clear cut case of having seen the cat eat something and knowing what the problem is. The symptoms usually include relentless vomiting, unwillingness to eat, not passing any stool, and significant lethargy and abdominal pain. Sometimes the signs are more subtle and sometimes it is obvious there is a serious problem. X-rays, and possibly a series of x-rays taken after barium has been given to make the intestines easier to see, are the main diagnostic tools used to diagnose the problem. Bloodwork and ultrasounds are often helpful and necessary to complete the picture.
The vast majority of the time tinsel does not cause any problems for cats in the household, but the one time it does it can become a serious life or death situation. I would venture to say that the enjoyment gained from decorating the cat jungle gym with tinsel probably doesn’t trump the risk of the problems associated with it. And don’t worry, there are not point deductions under international rules for knocking over a tree without tinsel.