The holidays are a wonderful time to bring friends and family closer, but there’s also a stressful side that can affect every member of your household, even your pets. Cats and dogs are acutely aware of our joy and frustration and can, it seems, read our emotions better than our lifelong human friends. They too can experience both sides of the holiday coin, enjoying companionship, yet feeling stress and frustration over activities and situations that change their daily routine.
Causes of Holiday Stress
Holidays cause a distinct change in many pet parents’ schedules that can lead to them spending less time at home. Some people may find themselves working more in the period leading up to the holidays, leaving home early, and being away for unusually long periods or during hours when they are usually home. Monday through Friday day workers may begin working night shifts or long weekends to make additional income. Even shopping for holiday gifts may keep you away for long periods on weekends, which is time you would normally spend at home, playing with your pet.
Your pet’s feeding schedule may also be altered to accommodate these shifts and excursions. Other things, such as the amount of daily exercise they receive and your ability to provide them with a normal bathroom schedule, may also be compromised. Spending time away from family members often makes a pet bored, anxious, or mischievous.
The holiday season may also cause distinct changes to a pet’s environment. Decorations and lights may be essential to your appreciation of the holiday, but they can make your pet’s life more difficult. Trees, packages, and gifts may block your pet’s access to food, water, or litter boxes. This may particularly affect older pets who find it more difficult to maneuver around such obstacles.
Pets with underlying anxiety may even be fearful of new decorations. Packages brought into the home will contain new smells and maybe even sounds. Dogs and cats have an acute sense of hearing, vision, and smell. Loud music, repetitive sounds accompanying toys and displays, as well as heavy scents from cooking and candles may be perceived as threats by certain animals. The sounds, scents, and sights can even affect sleep patterns and activity levels.
Holiday gatherings can be overwhelming for some pets. As humans, we interact with other people, sometimes in very large numbers with regularity. Many pets live a sheltered existence, and have a very small sphere of humans and animals with which they interact on any given day. Each holiday party may result in the number of pets and humans in a given household growing exponentially.
A pet living in a normally quiet home with older children or adults may suddenly find themselves surrounded by young children, elderly people with canes or walkers, or even loud, boisterous individuals with a strong dislike for pets. Some guests may even bring dogs or cats along with them. Not only must your pet deal with human visitors, but four-legged interlopers they might not get along with. Even the simple act of walking around the neighborhood may present your dog with the unfamiliar smells of visiting dogs from other households.
How to Detect Stress in Cats and Dogs
The signs of stress in dogs and cats may be blatantly obvious or extremely subtle. It is important to realize that some signs may be more difficult to observe.
Dramatic swings in your schedule and a significant increase in the time you spend away from your pet may cause separation anxiety, which is the feeling of distress and anxiety when a pet is left alone. This is most commonly seen in dogs, and affected dogs will whine, pace, and bark when owners leave the home. They may become destructive and tear up furniture, toys, or household items. Signs may be so severe that there is concern for a pet’s safety, especially if the animal becomes fixated on finding its way out of the home or enclosure, which may lead them to chew their way through a door frame or screen, jump through open windows, or break teeth chewing out of a crate or room.
House Soiling or Inappropriate Elimination
Cats typically manifest stress by changing litter box habits. They may refuse to use the litter box at all, instead, urinating on furniture or walls, and defecating on beds or on the floor. Dogs may urinate and defecate behind furniture or under tables.
Pets often respond to fearful noises and sights by hiding. Your pet may cower in the bathtub, under a bed, or in a closet. Truly stressed animals may not even want to leave their hiding spots for food or walks.
Pacing, Trembling, and Vocalizing
Acutely and severely stressed pets may tremble, whine, whimper, meow, or pace constantly.
Changes in Appetite
Cats may refuse to eat at all while stressed or shorten their feeding window, only venturing out to eat during the middle of the night when household activity is at its lightest. Dogs may eat less, skip meals, or only show interest in treats. They may begin eating, but become easily distracted by noises, smells, or activity and not finish meals.
Both dogs and cats may show dramatic changes in behavior when stressed. A dog that is usually playful and interactive around adults may bite or growl at kids. A pet may panic at the site of an elderly person with a cane and snap, growl, or even bite at a walker or, worse yet, person. Dogs used to living by themselves may growl, bite, or even fiercely defend their territory if another animal attempts to enter their home or yard. Cats may hiss, growl, and bite if strangers attempt to pet them. They may never learn to accept new dogs that enter the home, as short visits don’t allow adequate time for all pets to acclimate.
Licking, Yawning, or Averting Eyes When Meeting New Animals or People
It may seem cute or even funny if your dog yawns, licks their lips, or averts their eyes when meeting new people. However, these are signs of anxiety. Your dog is telling you that they are overwhelmed by the situation and wish to leave. Ignoring these signs could cause your dog to escalate their display, ultimately resulting in growling, snapping, or worse.
How to Manage and Prevent Holiday Stress for Pets
Although easier said than done, minimizing major changes to your pet’s routine, despite all the changes going on in the household, is very important. From a practical standpoint, this may mean hiring help or asking a friend to help keep your pet on a regular schedule. Try to feed your pet at the same time, day or night. Ask a friend, or hire a pet sitter to walk your pet while you are gone. This will allow ample time for them to use the bathroom in the appropriate manner. Being away from the hustle and bustle of the household and running off energy outside will clear your pet’s head in the same way we feel refreshed after a brisk walk outside. Regular exercise is so important to your dog’s overall well-being, yet one of the first areas we cut back on if crunched for time.
Dealing with Inappropriate Elimination in Cats
If your cat has begun house soiling, ask your helper to check your cat’s litter box. If you are busy and forget to clean the box, your cat may refuse to use it, and can you really blame them? Look at your house from your cat’s perspective. Is the Christmas tree blocking the path to the litter box? Are there packages blocking access to their litter box? Does your pet need to jump over decorations to access their box and their elderly joints and muscles won’t allow them to do so?
Getting Your Dog to Adapt to the Kennel
Dogs in particular adapt more readily to change if they are well socialized early on as puppies. If your dog is used to meeting new dogs and people, walking through crowds and being exposed to new or unusual circumstances, having house guests will be easy. Exposing your puppy to lights, moving toys, and new situations makes these things more tolerable as they age. Even older dogs benefit from slow, calm exposure to new people, objects, and situations. Doing a test run at the boarding facility during an off-peak weekend when the kennel is not busy will allow your pet the opportunity to get to know the kennel when it is a calmer place.
Rules for Houseguests
When guests visit your home, ask them to avoid bringing pets that aren’t familiar to your dog or cat. Also, all young children must be coached on how to interact with pets before they visit. Loud, boisterous guests, or those that fear or dislike pets, may be asked to temper their tone, limit their stay, or limit their access to certain areas of the home. You may find that those who are not “pet people” prefer to stay at a hotel during their visit, but stop by for meals and shorter visits.
Give Your Pet Their Own Space
If you have followed these recommendations, but your pet is still stressed, it may be best to limit the access they have with guests. You may find they are more relaxed if they are separated by a dog gate in an adjoining room or allowed to rest in their crate in a quieter area. Your pets may prefer that house guests do not touch them and your guests must respect that. Cats may be happiest if their food, water, and litter boxes are moved to a quieter area of the house without guest access.
Please make sure your pet does not feel isolated. Interact with them frequently and make sure they are getting the same amount of love, affection, and exercise they’re accustomed to. Banishing a dog to a room where they can hear activity, but can’t see or participate in it, may cause more anxiety. If none of these approaches work, asking your veterinarian to provide you with medications that both mildly sedate and lessen your pet’s anxiety may be the key to surviving the holiday season.
Despite all the concerns presented here, in reality, many pets enjoy the company offered by a house full of friends and family members. You know your pet better than anyone else and your intuition will help guide you as to how well your furry friend embraces the spirit of the season. Be present, be mindful, and you and your pets will all enjoy the holidays.