Integrative Pet Vet column: Holidays can be stressful for pets
Pets are an invaluable part of our families. The benefits of pet companionship are well recognized and include reduced anxiety, depression, and loneliness in humans (see “Owning a pet can improve your health” 12-26-15).
Pets provide a framework for increased social interactions. Approximately 40 percent of pet owners gain social support from people they met through their pet. Pets help to reduce stress in pet owners and they increase our quality of life and well-being.
The positive contribution that pets make in our lives has lead to widespread pet companionship. According to the American Pet Products Association 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey, 68 percent of U.S. household representing 85 million families, have a pet. Dogs and cats are the most popular. As a reflection of our bond, approximately 48 percent of dogs and 38 percent of cats received gifts for Christmas in 2016. In addition, the number of households having birthday parties for pets continues to increase.
While it is easy to focus on the benefits of pet companionship, it is important to recognize that our pets depend on humans for their daily physical and emotional health (see Helping your pet manage winter blues 11-24-17). Pets need physical activity and mental stimulation beyond their basic needs for food and water.
Dogs need daily exercise and time outdoors to walk and play. This can also give them mental stimulation as they explore their surroundings while outdoors. Many dogs benefit from social interactions through dog day care opportunities and dog parks.
Cats also need exercise and mental stimulation. This can be accomplished through play with the owner and other companion pets, use of safe toys for play, and creative activities such as food “hunting.”
While we recognize the dependency that pets have on humans for their physical needs, it is easy to forget the impact we have on our pet’s emotions. Pets respond to a wide range of cues beyond verbal communication. They are very good at reading emotional messages conveyed in our posture, facial expressions, tone of voice, and even changes in smells related to stress responses.
Unfortunately, while pets can perceive that we are stressed, they can’t always understand the cause of stress. They just recognize that their human companion has worries. This can create a stress response in pets that can manifest in a variety of ways including destructive behaviors, reduced appetite, restlessness, aggression, and even illness (see “Your dog can experience anxiety, too” 5-26-18).
During the holiday season there is a great deal of joy as we spend time with friends and family. We enjoy a change of routine, and we experience the fun of giving and receiving gifts. However, the holiday season also brings stress as we prepare for and participate in holiday activities. It also means we generally have less time to care for our pets and ourselves. Pets can become stressed from changes in their routine and when they recognize that their human companions are stressed.
Make sure to take time for your pets. Try to keep routines as regular as possible. When hosting parties, make sure that your pets have access to a quiet, comfortable place inside. This is especially important if the pet is anxious or is stressed by guests in the home.
Be cautious with allowing guests to bring their own pets. Not all pets will be comfortable together, especially in a stressful situation. Monitor the doors when guests are arriving or leaving so that your pet does not escape from the house. Pick up all the food leftovers and store them properly. Place the trash in a location that is not accessible to pets. This will avoid temptation and potential illness problems.
Additional steps that can help to reduce pet stress include the use of pheromones like Feliway, remedies like Rescue Remedy, products like Composure, and nutritional supplements and herbs that reduce anxiety. Essential oils like lavender can be calming but be cautious with essential oils around cats because cats are susceptible to toxicity. Contact a qualified behavior specialist or dog trainer for additional tips. In some situations, the use of anti-anxiety medications may be necessary.
If you have questions about helping your pet cope with the stress of the holidays, contact your veterinarian.
Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. He is also the founder of Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE). In addition to his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, he holds a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.