Along with cozy traditions and festive good cheer, the holiday season brings its own special challenges: what other time of the year can you walk into your living room to find your cat careening off of a Christmas tree, or your puppy polishing off a bag of stick-on bows? Read on to learn about these and other holiday problems, as well as how to avoid them.

The problem: Holiday taste temptations. Pets learn about the world like babies do—by tasting it. Dogs especially may explore any curious new object by giving it a thoughtful chew. Unfortunately, many of the foods and decorations of the holidays are potently toxic to cats and dogs, including chocolate, xylitol (an artificial sweetener), and plants such as mistletoe. Even seemingly innocent objects like tinsel, ribbons and wreaths may seem like interesting playthings to pets, who can face medical emergencies like bowel obstructions as a result.

The solution: Pet-proof your celebrations. As you’re decorating and planning meals, take extra care to keep all the delicious people foods and fascinating ribbons, boxes, plants and wrappings out of your pets’ reach. And if necessary, barricade your pet out of the kitchen when baking, and advise well-meaning guests not to slip your pets any “treats” of people food.

Consult these lists of potentially harmful plants and foods to know what to be cautious about. And if you find that your pet has ingested something on these lists, contact your veterinarian immediately for further instructions.

The problem: O Christmas Tree… of danger. The Christmas tree deserves special mention, because it presents such a tempting climbing wall to cats and buffet of crunchy decorations to dogs, bringing with it a whole slew of hazards.

The solution: Make it a Christmas tree of safety instead. If your cats are climbers (or your dog is large enough to topple a tree with a wagging tail) be sure to securely anchor the tree. Hang problematic decorations such as tinsel and garlands far out of reach, or forego them altogether. Keep wrapped gifts off of the floor until it’s time to open them, and spray enticingly chewy lighting cords with anti-chew products. Don’t allow fallen pine needles to remain on the floor, as they may be toxic to pets, and don’t let your pet drink water from the tree stand, which may contain harmful preservatives or bacteria.

The problem: Stress. If you find the holidays to be stressful, it’s a guarantee your pet does as well. In addition to being attuned to your anxiety, your pet faces difficulties like upside-down routines due to your traveling and party-going, and a houseful of people when family visits. Even seemingly small changes, such as rearranging to make room for decorations, can throw off sensitive pets.

The solution: Take time for your pet, and for yourself. While adding “extra-special pet care” to your to-do list during the holiday season may seem like madness, in reality caring for your pet can also be a way for you to relax and de-stress. Take your dog for a daily long walk or run to get some much-needed exercise for both of you. Spend time grooming and playing with your cat; it’s been shown that petting an animal decreases blood pressure. Make sure to not abandon your pet to long hours alone when you head out to parties, and ensure that they have a quiet place to retreat to when your home fills up with guests. It’s the right thing to do for your companion, and taking extra time to ensure their comfort may prevent stress-related illness down the line.

The problem: Gift-giving gone awry. Well-intentioned gift-givers may find the holiday season to be the perfect opportunity to surprise their loved ones with a new puppy, kitten, or other adorable pet. In reality, though, a new pet should never come as a surprise to the recipient. Although an adorable new friend may seem like an exciting and dramatic gift, after the novelty wears off the recipient is left with the reality of caring for a living thing, a burden that they may not be prepared for.

The solution: Surprise them with an adoption kit instead of a pet. If you know that the recipient is wishing to add a particular companion animal to their life, give them the gift of supplies needed for that animal, such as leashes, water and food bowls, or a gift certificate to an adoption agency. Offer to go with them to help select a pet from the shelter after the excitement of the holidays has died down and they are better able to welcome the pet into a calm, well-prepared household. If the recipient is a family member, such as a child, make certain that you are able to supervise the care of the pet to ensure that its needs are met for the rest of its life. Helping someone open their home to a homeless animal is a wonderful thing to do, but it is also a decision to be made with care and respect for the animal.

Although the holidays may present unique challenges for you and your pet, they are no different than any other time of year, when considering your pet’s safety and well-being is paramount. Keeping in mind your pet’s needs, as well as keeping out of reach temptations such as that box of holiday chocolates, is all you need to do to ensure that this is truly the most wonderful—and safe—time of the year. – Meredith Southard

An animal lover since she could shriek the word “doggie,” Meredith Southard has written for national and statewide publications on topics such as wildlife rehabilitation and rescue, conservation dogs, and the animals of Ohio’s wetlands. On warm spring nights she can be found traipsing around vernal pools with a flashlight, looking for salamanders and frogs.