It may have been a while since we’ve entertained at home (ugh, pandemic) and we’re ready for a little gathering to celebrate moving into a new year. But for pet owners we can’t forget our furry friends. They may have a sense of anxiety or nervousness with having more bodies in their home once again. What signs should we keep an eye on and what can we do to help?
Dr. Jo Myers, practicing veterinarian on Vetster tells us our pets’ reactions to being overwhelmed can be as varied and individual as our own. “Most cats are inclined to hide, and you should allow this. Don’t force social interactions for any pet. Some dogs are also inclined to try to escape and find a quiet spot where they can feel safe and isolated from the busy-ness and chaos, but not all. Some get overstimulated and these dogs may get the zoomies, incessantly bring guests a ball to throw, or start humping anyone who stands still long enough. They should be encouraged to “Lie down”, “Go to bed”, or be removed from the situation if the behaviour continues.”
But what happens when a pet isn’t able to escape to a safe spot or otherwise manage to cope with these overwhelming situations? Dr. Myers explains that they may escalate to feeling anxious. “Once again, cats are less demonstrative about their emotions, and you’re unlikely to see an anxious cat because they’ll just disappear. An anxious dog is easier to spot.” Some of the signs to watch for include yawning and lip-licking — those are the first signs a dog is uncomfortable or uncertain, according to Dr. Myers. “Panting usually comes next. Other signs a dog is struggling to cope include whining, barking, and soliciting attention.
A well-trained, well-adjusted dog is able to calm themselves in any situation, including when people come over, and tend to go lie down after a friendly greeting.”
So, what can we do to prepare them or comfort them before people come over?
Dr. Myers actually cautions pet parents against thinking it’s their job to comfort a pet when it’s anxious or upset. “I understand the intentions are good, but that’s not how it works. Even though it’s difficult to see them struggle or be uncomfortable, efforts to calm them down may make things worse and deprive them of the opportunity to develop necessary coping skills.
A healthy, well-adjusted pet is able to calm themselves down and cope with a variety of situations. It’s something that comes from within and providing external comfort is not part of being an A+ pet parent. When your pet is anxious or upset, give them the space they need to remove themselves from the stressful situation so they can figure out how to cope with it.”
Is it possible to condition an easily-overwhelmed pet to remain calm when people come over? Yes, but it takes time. Dr. Myers tells us the basic strategy is called “desensitization” and it involves repeatedly exposing them to the stressful trigger in gradually increasing amounts. That means setting up multiple “pretend” parties that gradually last longer and involve more people arriving. Desensitization usually takes several weeks of daily work, so, unfortunately, it’s a little too late to start that process for this year.
However, she tells us your next best strategy now is to just allow your pets to escape, lay low, and opt out of participating. “You can tackle the long-term training commitment for teaching good manners during a less-busy time of year.”
Dr. Myers also mentions that it’s also important to keep safety top-of-mind when having company over. It may take extra vigilance to keep a pet from escaping when doors are opening and closing frequently. Keep the doors to the coat room locked so pets won’t find their way into guests’ pockets and the potential hazards they may contain. Remind guests there are pets in the house so they keep food, drinks, cigarettes, and other potentially harmful items out of reach.
You may want to check our previous post on holiday foods and pets here.
Thank you again to Dr. Myers, practicing veterinarian with Vetster– the world’s fastest-growing veterinary telehealth platform, for these amazing tips and for helping us navigate the holiday season with our pets!