I don't have tinsel on my Christmas tree and haven't since I've had cats. I know all too well the dangers of "linear foreign bodies" in cats, and tinsel is a big culprit. This lesson was driven home this past weekend with one of my clients.
I'll call this cat Buzzsaw (not his real name....just his behavior). He is a rather obese, quite unfriendly cat who came in for a few days of vomiting and not eating. His exam (what I could get of it without sedation) was unremarkable. The owner said that he did like to chew on plastic bags, but more importantly they did have tinsel on their Christmas tree. The husband (let's call him Mr. Toldyaso) had been opposed to tinsel, having heard it was a bad combination with cats. But his wife and children overruled him, and the tinsel went up.
We sedated Buzzsaw and I took some abdominal radiographs. With his rather corpulent nature there was great contrast with the fat in his abdomen and I could clearly see a very suspicious part of his intestines. This confirmed my worries, and I called Mr. Toldyaso that we needed to get Buzzsaw into surgery right away. Not doing so could prove to be fatal within a few days.
Linear foreign bodies are anything long, flexible, and thin within the intestinal tract. This can include sewing thread, fishing line, ribbon, and yes, tinsel. If a long section of the material goes into the digestive tract the movement of the intestines acts like a draw cord on curtains. When your curtains are closed you can pull on a string, which causes them to open. If you look at them you'll notice that as they close they develop pleats and bunch together. The same thing happens with the intestines. The contraction of the muscles moves the intestine but not the string, so the intestines bunch together along the object. If this goes on long enough it can actually start to cut into the intestine causing severe and life-threatening damage. The only way to fix it is to go in surgically as soon as possible.
We did the emergency surgery and Buzzsaw was very lucky. I found the affected area quickly and the intestines were healthy with no obvious damage. At that point it was a matter of making a few small incisions and carefully removing the tinsel. Closing the intestine and abdomen was routine and he recovered well. The surgery ended only two hours before we closed, so I sent him to the local emergency clinic for overnight observation. That was four days ago and he's home and doing well.
I had a conversation with Mr. Toldyaso when he picked Buzzsaw up last Saturday night. He said that he was trying not to be mean about it, but he hadn't wanted the tinsel to be put up in the first place. I did save most of it and gave it to him in a plastic bag to take home and show his family as an object lesson. Our charges were around $1000, and the emergeny clinic probably charged around $500 to hospitalize and observe Buzzsaw until he could go home. Mr. Toldyaso was quite clear with his family. "You wanted a computer for Christmas. Instead, you have your cat."
While I have tried to instill a little humor in the story, it's one that is completely true and has serious consequences. Cats have a very, very high tendency to want to chew on long, thin objects, and this can result in disastrous outcomes, including emergency surgery. Buzzsaw was lucky because we caught it relatively early and there was no damage, but it could have been quite different. If you have cats, you should NEVER use tinsel in decorating.