Easy -- and Cheap! -- Holiday Gift Ideas for Cats

The economy may be hurting our wallets, but that doesn’t mean you need to skip gift-giving this holiday season, especially when it comes to your cat. There’s no need to splurge on presents for your favorite pet; the best gifts often involve more thought and less cash. Here’s a Santa’s sack full of ideas for homemade, handmade or inexpensive cat gifts:

Homemade Gifts

  • Catnip mice: Cat owner Donna Hinshaw suggests this idea for those who aren’t particularly crafty. Take a 2-inch-by-3-inch square of fabric, fill it with catnip and sew it shut. “I make mine in the vague shape of a mouse and use a Sharpie to draw on eyes and a smiling mouth,” says Hinshaw. “Include an old shoelace or a drawstring from a fancy shopping bag as the tail, about 12 to 18 inches long. Some cats carry the mouse around by the tail.” Hinshaw removes the plastic end of the shoelace as a safety precaution and knots the end so it won’t unravel.
  • Quilts and blankets: Your cat’s new blanket can be as simple as a piece of fleece or the bottom from an old sweater, says Hinshaw, who makes small quilts to donate to shelter adoption centers. Hinshaw’s simple instruction are to lay two pieces of fleece back-to-back, cutting fringe around the edges and tying the fringe of the two pieces together.
  • Climbers: The climbing towers you find in pet stores can be expensive. Consider converting an old wooden ladder into a climbing tower, suggests Sandy Sandler, a crafts expert in Henderson, Nev. You can cover the steps with carpet remnants and create a tower that suits your decor. Make sure you secure the ladder to the wall.
  • Chenille stem toys: Chenille stems, also known as pipe cleaners, come in an amazing variety of colors, patterns and sizes. You can roll balls of tinfoil, then wrap chenille stems around them to hold the shape. Or mold a few stems into fish and then attach them to a wooden dowel to make a swat toy, says Sandler.
  • Flying toys: Simply attach pieces of floppy fabric to the end of a straightened wire hanger, then move it through the air as if it were a bird, advises Dr. Lee Pickett, a Bernville, Pa., veterinarian. You can also make a fishing toy by tying a feather or fallen leaves to the end of a string attached to a stick.

Handmade Gifts

  • Gifts that empower others: You’ll find colorful, yet economical, gifts for your kitty made by a Guatemalan women’s cooperative at UPAVIMCrafts.org. Supporting this organization helps craftswomen who are sometimes the sole economic support of their families. A breakaway collar is $5.10, and an organic catnip hacky sack sells for $5. Organic catnip mice cost $7.30.
  • Organic cotton collars: Jimena Lopez-Rehmer sells handmade collars using organic cotton for $15 each at CollarsWithColor.com. She offers holiday themes, including snowmen and gingerbread men.

Inexpensive Gifts

  • Warming pad: The Pet-zzz-pad ($19.99) heats your kitty’s bed to a vet-recommended 102 degrees. The pad activates once your cat steps onto its bed.
  • Organic wheatgrass: Everything you need to grow organic wheatgrass arrives in a bag from online eco boutique LavishAndLime.com. The bag sells for $10.50.

Remember Safety
As you make or purchase gifts for your cat, Pickett cautions that you keep safety in mind. Strings, ribbon, tinsel and yarn can cause deadly obstructions if your cat eats the material. Always supervise the use of stringed toys. If you splurge on a number of gifts, rotate them to keep your cat’s interest.

Celebrate the Season While Helping Cats in Need

Do you have good cheer, a hearty laugh and a love of felines? Then the Cat Adoption Team (CAT), a nonprofit cat shelter in Portland, Ore., has a volunteer opportunity for you.

CAT, which cares for 400 to 600 cats and kittens on a daily basis, relies on the generosity of the public and the hard work of volunteers, especially during the holiday season. That's when some volunteers are called upon to don a red suit and hat, a white beard and jingle bells before posing for pictures with kitties at a busy local pet store. It's all for a good cause, since $5 from each picture-taking session with kitty is donated to cats in need. “We are fortunate to live where people really do demonstrate their support for both cat and dog shelters,” says Kimi Christiansen, CAT's development manager, who started out as a volunteer.

You may be surprised at how you can turn some of your own holiday activities -- such as baking cookies, shopping and even socializing -- into fundraising for your local shelter.

How to Help During the Holidays

  • Find homes for homeless cats While making the rounds at holiday parties, spread the word that many shelter animals need good homes. You’ll be part of a growing effort. In 1999, the Helen Woodward Animal Center, a non-profit, no-kill shelter in San Diego County, Calif., teamed up with 14 other local shelters to start the Home 4 the Holidays program. They found homes for 2,563 orphaned pets that year. The program has since grown into the largest pet adoption drive in the world. This year, they hope to facilitate 1.5 million adoptions.
  • Organize a feline food drive Encourage your church, school, company or other organization to set up a food drive to help your local shelter. Some, such as CAT, operate food banks for families with pets who are having economic difficulty. "Get a giant box and put it in the lobby or send information in the company newsletter," suggests Tim Crum, of The Philanthropy Team, a fundraising and marketing company for animal shelters.
  • Collect pennies for pets Recruit your elementary and middle school students to collect coins to help a local shelter. "Make it a contest between classrooms or between schools," says Crum. He worked with one school in Pittsburgh that raised $2,500 in pennies for the Animal Rescue League a few years ago.
  • Bake cookies to help cats While baking holiday cookies, fruitcakes or other delectable treats, make enough to hold a bake sale to raise funds for a shelter. If possible, set up at a local library or in the school cafeteria.
  • Buy gift cards for shelters During your holiday shopping outings, don't forget to pick up a gift card for your local shelter. "If you know a shelter shops at a particular store, get them a gift card or certificate, since they are a business," says Kimberley Intino, a certified animal welfare administrator and the director of shelter services for the Humane Society of the United States. The options include pet stores, office supply stores or discount chains.

Spreading Holiday Cheer
Thanks to picture-taking with Santa, an annual holiday auction called Whisker Wonderland and an online giving campaign sponsored by a local weekly newspaper, CAT expects to raise more than $150,000 this holiday season. They couldn't do it without help from the community.

In addition to opening their wallets and pocketbooks, Portland residents donate cat trees, pet sitting, artwork and other items. If the economy has made funds tight, residents are encouraged to donate their time. "We're always looking for people who want to make a limited time commitment," says Christiansen.

Hidden Causes of Cat Allergies

During the lengthy search for a “hypoallergenic” dog for the Obama family, the spotlight fell on the wheezes and sneezes some pet owners, like the president’s asthma-prone daughter, may experience. But did you know that dogs and cats can suffer from human-related allergies as well?

"We probably see nine and a half dogs for every half a cat," says Andrew C. Mills, DVM, MPH, of the Veterinary Dermatology and Allergy Centre in Coon Rapids, Minn. But even though cats tend to have fewer allergies than dogs, your feline friend could still be suffering without your knowledge.

Types of Allergies
When a cat is allergic, its immune system reacts badly to a foreign substance. These irritants can be classified into four basic groups:

1. Inhaled Allergy-causing substances that your cat can breathe into its body fall under this category. According to Dr. Mills, such substances include cigarette smoke, dust and mold in homes, and human dander -- tiny scales from hair and skin that become part of the environment. In addition, nature itself can contribute to inhaled allergies, especially on a seasonal basis. "Cats can breathe in grass and tree pollen in the spring," explains Dr. Mills, "and skin is a target organ." As a result, some cats experience a chronic urge to itch when spring comes into full bloom.

2. Food Bad reactions to something in your pet’s diet are equally troublesome. "Cats aren't born with food allergies -- it's an acquired thing," says Dr. Mills. Cats can even develop allergies to food they have enjoyed for a long time, especially proteins. Beef and chicken are the most common culprits, but wheat, soy and dairy products may also irritate certain feline immune systems. These cases can lead to digestive and respiratory disorders, as well as skin irritation. 

3. Fleas Cats can be extremely allergic to flea saliva, a particular concern in spring, when populations of the parasites can explode. One small flea bite can cause a cat to scratch and chew the area intensely, which may lead to a bacterial infection. To find out whether your cat is allergic to fleas, watch for scabs on its rump and around the head and neck.

4. Contact Contact allergies, the least common of the four main types, can occur when your cat comes into contact with anything from flea collars to certain types of fabric, like wool. Felines sensitive to such things may then suffer from skin irritation.

How to Tell -- and Treat
If your cat exhibits raw, hairless areas, crusting and scabbing on the skin, or is itching, scratching, licking and biting often, allergies may be the underlying medical issue. To rule out other possible causes, consult a veterinary dermatologist for a kitty allergy exam. "We inject the cat with 60 antigens, or extracts of what the cat could be allergic to. If the cat is allergic to any of these, the skin reacts but does not trigger an allergic reaction," he shares. The exam will help pinpoint the allergy, and your veterinarian will usually recommend one or more of the following steps:

  • Identify and remove the allergen Allergy tests best identify contact and inhaled types of allergies. The solution may be as simple as removing the allergen, such as ditching a skin-irritating collar and replacing it with something more comfortable for your pet.

  • Bathe your cat and change its bedding Because your cat can absorb substances through its skin, it is important to keep your pet clean. Regular baths, using a hypoallergenic shampoo, will help remove surface allergens and provide relief for your cat. In addition, change bedding monthly to prevent the accumulation of dust mites.

  • Clean house often and quit smoking A clean home environment will keep dust and fleas at bay while ensuring both yours and your cat’s health.

  • Combat fleas before they bite Monthly flea products that are topically applied will kill fleas before they can bite your cat.

  • Schedule regular allergy shots Once specific allergies are identified, small amounts of the antigens can be injected weekly into your cat to reprogram its immune system. There is a 50 percent success rate, with an added 25 percent of all cats showing partial or good responses. 

  • Try antihistamines and cortisone shots Antihistamines are compounds that block histamine -- the chemical that causes many allergy symptoms. Cortisone shots offer immediate relief, but prolonged use may cause kidney problems in cats, so it’s best to use them sparingly.

  • Feed a hypoallergenic diet "Because we can't determine food allergies from skin testing, sometimes it's useful to try out different foods," says Dr. Mills. Many foods on the market today target allergies by including proteins and carbohydrates uncommon in cats’ regular diet, such as lamb and barley. Look for high-quality products that also contain fatty acids and linoleic acid, both of which help relieve inflamed skin and restore a healthy coat.

Ultimately, if your cat’s itching and scratching is so severe that it keeps you up at night, it’s time to seek treatment. However, you can help prevent allergies in the first place with a little detective work and professional advice.

Twelve Days of Cat Holiday Gifting

There is no better time than the holiday season to make your loved ones feel extra special, and that includes your cat. Now you can thank kitty in a generous way for the value it adds to your life all year round. To aid you in this effort, we searched for the most exciting, innovative cat gifts of 2008. Backed by cat experts, the following 12 products will enhance your cat’s standard of living in each area of its life.

1. SLEEP: Round Heated Cat Bed

Infused with low-voltage heating, Petmate’s cat bed is cozy and comfortable. It also comes with a chew-resistant power cord. “My first thought is, what a terrific idea!” exclaims animal behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman, professor at Tufts’ Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Mass., and author of The Cat Who Cried for Help (Bantam Books 1997). “Cats love warm places and gravitate towards heat,” he explains. “Unfortunately, that makes them do bad things, like get under the hood of the car.” To avoid such calamities, this toasty bed offers a safe alternative.

2. FOOD: Le Bistro Electronic Portion-Control Feeder

With the convenience of Petmate’s programmable feeder, your cat will love the punctuality of its meals. Easy to program, the feeder dispenses preset portions at specific times every day. “It’s like a robot feeding your cats,” says Dr. Dodman. “Rather than have food sitting out all the time, there will be this noise, and your cats will immediately know that food is being dispensed and run excitedly to get it.” Cats will appreciate the precise feedings, while you benefit from the efficiency of this easy-to-clean device. Just keep in mind that no robot can replace the good company and assurance you can provide for your cat at dinner and other times of the day.

3. FITNESS: Complete Cat Gym With Cat Hammock

Because holiday treats and frequent catnaps may pack the pounds onto your favorite feline, this majestic, nine-level gym combines exercise and excitement to keep kitty trim and fit. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that cats need a 3D environment, so this is exactly the kind of thing I’d recommend,” says Dr. Dodman. Featuring climbing surfaces, scratching posts, a big cat condo and a cozy hammock, Cozy Cat Furniture’s Complete Cat Gym with Cat Hammock allows for a range of movement, similar to what cats would do in the wild.

4. FUN: Kitty Cat Playhouse

Petmate’s new playhouse is the perfect diversion for cats that like to spice up their lives with variety. The playhouse includes toys, a plush carpet for deeper scratching, two levels of hiding fun and insulation for added comfort. “It includes lots of creature comforts -- it’s a good idea that will depend on the individual cat’s preferences,” says Dr. Dodman. The warm bleached linen color of the playhouse will complement your home décor as well.

5. FASHION: Tan Plaid Wool Coat for Cats

While your cat’s own coat is naturally magnificent, why not provide your pet an extra one for added warmth this winter? Online boutique The Gilded Paw offers a stylish and practical plaid wool coat. Certified reflexologist Jackie Segers, author of Reflexology for Cats (David Bateman 1997), loves the idea. “It’s so pretty and a great gift for cats that have short coats that feel the cold in winter.” Just slip the coat over your pet’s head and seal the Velcro closure on its belly. Easy to wash, this coat will allow your cat to be stylish and comfortable all winter long.

6. HYGIENE: Self-cleaning Litter Box

It’s not a new product, but it is an innovative idea, which is why LitterMaid’s litter box has been a favorite with cat owners for over 10 years. Here’s how it works: As the cat leaves the box, sensors set a timer for the cleaning cycle. Ten minutes later, a rake combs through the litter, opens the waste receptacle and deposits clumps before closing the cover and returning to the normal position. The sealed, disposable waste receptacles include carbon filters and make waste disposal easy. But, “if you don’t replace the litter, it starts to smell,” says Dr. Dodman, who has allowed his own cats to use this type of box for years. “It’s a big, heavy box,” he warns. “You still need to clean it, and it’s a little bit of work.”

7. ECO-CONSCIOUSNESS: Grow Your Own Organic Catnip Plant Kit

Team up with your cat on this eco-friendly project. Most felines go nuts for catnip. If you have a green thumb, From the Field’s Grow Your Own Catnip Plant Kit will offer both you and your pet loads of fun. The kit comes with catnip seeds, one peat pellet disk and a small sample of catnip. “It is the gift that keeps on giving,” asserts Segers, who adds that fresh catnip is always more pungent and effective than dried versions of the herb.

8. COMFORT: Relax-a-Cat

With several scratching and playing surfaces, Imperial Cat’s uniquely shaped scratcher will draw your cat in on a daily basis. Jennifer Bristol, director of the Animal Haven shop and sponsorship program in New York City, vouches for the popularity of Imperial Cat products. “Cats love to lounge on them, and they sleep on them, too,” she says. And with its sleek look and feel, it’s reminiscent of an art sculpture.

9. PAMPERING: Cat Spa

Ripple massagers, acupressure pads, body-stroke groomers and a gum stimulator lure cats in for the perfect self-grooming session. Hagen Living World’s interactive cat toy penetrates fur deeply for an intense massage and allows cats to feel pressure points under their paws. This four-in-one spa also massages and cleans teeth and gums as cats gnaw on it. Whether you’re home or away, this toy will nurture your cat with an ultra-sensory experience.

10. SKIN CARE: Shea Butter Skin Repair and Dander Care

Free of color and scent, this gentle herbal formula from SheaPet helps control minor skin care issues like dry skin and hot spots. Premium skin conditioners and shea butter promote a healthy coat and soothe irritated skin. Segers suggests that this is “a great alternative to steroid creams, which I feel just mask symptoms rather than actually heal mild skin conditions.” If your cat has serious skin issues, however, do not replace a visit to your veterinarian with this product.

11. SURROUNDINGS: Kitty’s Garden

Just because your cat lives indoors doesn’t mean your pet is not a nature lover. “Plant-eating is a natural behavior for cats,” says Dr. Dodman. “A study found that 35 percent of cats in the world eat plants,” he adds. To prevent your cat from chewing on harmful plants, SmartCat offers another option: You can create a safe, nutritious potted garden for your cat. Kitty’s Garden comes with an elegant box, peat moss and organic seeds. In just four to six days, your cat will have a garden of oat, rye, barley and wheat grass to chew on, which will provide vitamins, help to control hairballs and aid in digestion.

12. SYMBOLIC GIFT: Pet Portrait Cat Bowl

This personal designer cat dish by Tails by the Lake will forever seal your cat’s identity as a true member of the family. That’s because it features a hand-painted picture of your own pet! Individually signed by the artist, the dish is microwavable and dishwasher-safe. “Great gift, kind of cute, humorous and usable,” chuckles Dr. Dodman. “I think that’s definitely something I would think about as a gift.” With a quick Internet search, or a visit to your local pet store, you can track down the perfect holiday gift for your kitty. Your cat will likely appreciate the effort, replacing a famous holiday carol’s “rings” chorus with “five happy meows.”

Don't Let Halloween Spook Your Cat

In mythology and folklore, superstitions link cats to witches and bad luck on Halloween, but it’s actually our feline friends who ought to be scaredy-cats on the fall holiday. That’s because many of its accoutrements, such as trick-or-treating, candlelit jack-o’-lanterns and candy in foil wrappers carry risks for our felines. Just the sound of kids screaming “Boo!” could give your cat nightmares for weeks.

There is good news for black-cat owners in particular, though, since the ASPCA hasn’t seen any data to confirm that such felines are at high risk on Halloween for worse fates, like catnapping or use in black magic rituals. Some shelters in the past refused to adopt out black cats as Oct. 31 approached. “The data does not support the notion that black cats are at terrible risk at Halloween,” says Gail Buchwald, senior vice president of ASPCA Community Outreach in New York City. Nevertheless, she adds, “Cats should be kept out of harm’s way in the hubbub of this holiday season.”

Problems for Cats on Halloween
Here are some of the real hazards cats can face during Halloween and how you can prevent any harm from coming to your kitty.

  • Costumes Some pet owners like to dress up their animals during Halloween in either homemade or store-bought costumes. Before you plan on dressing up kitty in a fireman’s uniform or as a princess, consider if this will be enjoyable for your pet. “It’s probably kinder not to put them through that,” says Nancy Peterson, feral cat program manager of the Humane Society of the United States. Peterson recommends, “If you do dress them up, you want to make sure there aren’t parts of the costume that could get caught on things or they could harm themselves.”
  • Trick-or-treating When front doors are opened and closed frequently as children trick-or-treat, cats can get frightened and bolt out the door. Cats can be sensitive to sound and disruptions in routine, all of which can skyrocket their stress levels. Buchwald recommends that, before the holiday arrives, you should make sure your pet has updated ID tags, and if possible, a microchip in case they do wander off. On Halloween night, you can also place a sign on your front door asking children to avoid the doorbell and to instead knock softly. Peterson suggests placing your pet in a room with some gentle music playing and the door closed, creating a safe haven for your feline friend.
  • Candy If there is candy or treats lying around the house, your cat may be tempted -- not necessarily to the sweetness, because your kitty doesn’t have sweet-taste receptors -- but to foil wrappers that may catch light and look like something playful. “It’s not unlikely for kittens to want to play with crinkly wrapped items,” Buchwald says. It’s harmful enough for cats to eat candy, as some artificial sweeteners, such as xylitol, have been found to be toxic to animals. But if your cat swallows a wrapper, it could cause gastrointestinal problems that could require emergency surgery. It pays to keep candy dishes covered on Halloween night and to remind children and visitors to throw away all wrappers in covered trash cans.
  • Candles and decorations A favorite Halloween tradition involves carving a jack-o’-lantern and making it look spooky by placing a lit candle inside. Since some cats can jump up to six feet high, any lit candles or jack-o’-lanterns should be kept well out of reach of your pet. “Never leave a candle unattended,” Peterson warns. “A kitty tail can knock over a candle very easily. Also, if a cat were to jump up to where a candle is, it could be very dangerous for them.” Other Halloween decorations are equally dangerous, such as fake cobwebs, which your cat might get caught in and/or may swallow, the latter of which could result in an intestinal blockage, Peterson says. It’s best to skip the fake cobwebs altogether and to light up your jack-o’-lanterns with small, sturdy flashlights.

Safe Cat Halloween Celebrations
There are ways to prepare your feline friend for the big night of goblins and ghouls. Exercise is an important stress reducer. Playing with your pet for a bit earlier on Halloween night might therefore be the calm inducer your pet needs to brave the hullabaloo. “It’s not something that would appeal to them at a time of stress, so I wouldn’t advise it during the hubbub,” Buchwald says. “But something that involves high energy on the morning of the hubbub would be great. The idea is that a tired cat is more likely to be a calm cat.”

In addition to commercial cat toys, like wands or lasers to chase, there are some fun homemade games you can concoct to play with your cat. Peterson says that many cats enjoy batting around a pingpong ball in an empty bathtub. She also says a paper shopping bag can work wonders. Just take off the handles, cut a hole in the bottom and stick a wand through the hole to entice your cat into the bag. Many cats, Peterson says, also like to pounce on newspaper that you spread on the floor.

“On Halloween, it’s a great time to play with your kitty and make sure you spend some quality time together,” Peterson says. “Kids get so excited about trick or treating and candy, or a party, that they sometimes forget that kitty depends on them every day for love and attention.” She adds, “It’s a nice time to do something fun or even something quiet, like sit down and pet your cat. It might calm you down, too.”