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PET TIPS: The holidays can be stressful if your pet is not properly prepared for company

Having guests over during the holidays can be stressful if your pet is not properly prepared for company. Although BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital only begin to see an uptick in pets for anxiety and distress after the holidays (as owners are usually too busy during the festivities), board-certified veterinary behaviorist, Walter F. Burghardt, says it is important that behavioral issues are addressed sooner rather than later.

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Here’s what pet owners should know while hosting guests this holiday season, according to behavioral expert, Dr. Burghardt: 

What may "trigger" a pet to react? 

Holiday events that seem to trigger stress in pets include many of the things in our life that are different during the holiday season. For instance, this might include boarding a pet or leaving a pet by themselves at home for a longer period of time. It might also result from having company (people and animals) and a lot of holiday-related activities. Visiting someone else's home with a pet could also be a trigger for anxiety.  The sights, sounds, smells (and tastes) of the holiday season can also be culprits. Most notably, fireworks and even winter storms can affect pets.  

What are the signs a pet has anxiety? 

Some signs of anxiety make sense and are pretty easy to identify. These include behaviors like whining, pacing, and panting, especially if it's not warm. Other indications of anxiety include behaviors that are a little more subtle such as yawning and lip licking. Frequently accompanying these observable behaviors are physiologic signs like mild increases in body temperature, heart rate and respiration. Other signs potentially indicating anxiety could include increases or decreases in appetite, upset stomach or house soiling, irritability, or changes in social interactions with people or other animals, and even hiding. 

What can I do to prevent my pet from anxiety/distress?  

The most important thing that owners can do to try to prevent problems with anxiety in their pets is to try to broaden experiences with novel sights, sounds, smells, people and animals as part of their socialization and training process. This is equally important with dogs that will be expected to get out and about and with cats that might be more of homebodies. As a rule, "shock" exposure to novel situations can often trigger anxiety and problem behaviors, while gradual and rewarded exposure to novel experiences can make them less threatening - even fun. 

Here are some other expert tips to help prep your pet:  

  1. Help your pet burn off some energy. If you are too busy shopping, cooking, or tending to guests to take your pet to the park, try using pet puzzles and pick up some new toys. When your pet is tired from play and exercise, they can relax more easily when your guests arrive. 
  2. Maintain your routine and schedule. The holidays tend to flip our schedules around but maintaining routines can calm a stressed-out pet. Remember: Dogs and cats thrive on predictability and stability. For example, if your dog normally gets an evening walk at 5:00, be sure to grab the leash and give your pup a quick walk – even if that means taking a break from the party. 
  3. Assign helpers. The holidays are hectic. If there is just too much to do in one day, consider boarding your pet, hiring a pet sitter, or finding a dog walker. Pet sitters can even come over and play/supervise with your dog or cat while you are home.  
  4. Create a calm space in your home. Sometimes it is best to keep your dog or cat in a secure room away from noise and guests. Prep a room with comfy bedding, calming music, and their favorite toys and treats. It is also smart to put a note on the door asking guests not to knock or enter. 

To keep pets safe this holiday season, it’s best to be proactive and plan ahead. If you would like to speak with Dr. Burghardt about how to keep anxious pets at bay this holiday season, please let me know. I would be happy to connect you for interview and/or written commentary.