All those holiday greetings and happy meetings are part of the fun of December, but it might not be so fun for your dog.
The hustle and bustle of the holidays can cause stress and anxiety for pets, especially if you have a household full of guests or new faces. Unfamiliar people, loud noises and new environments can cause fear-related anxiety in dogs, according to The American Kennel Club.
Dogs can also experience anxiety from being separated from their family members, being left alone or moving into a new home. That’s good to keep in mind if your holiday plans involve traveling or adopting a new pet.
“It’s normal to expect a change in our dogs or cats behavior during this time of the year,” said Dr. Jose Arce, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. “And it’s important that we recognize some of the signs of anxiety so that we can do something about it.”
As the holiday season gets into full swing, here’s what experts say to look for and advice for keeping your animals calm.
What behavior to look for
Panting, pacing, aggression, excessive barking, drooling, destruction and having accidents in the house may all be signs of anxiety. So can restlessness and not eating on a typical schedule. Pay attention to body language – for example, a dog pulling its ears back or showing the whites of its eyes – can also indicate fear.
That behavior could be a one-time event or a longer term issue that requires a visit to a veterinarian, according to vets and animal behaviorists who spoke to CNN.
Some signs of stress are often misinterpreted as excitement or joy by pet owners, experts say. Dogs can be clingy when they are anxious and may stay near their owners or even try to get close to new people in order to suss them out, according to Rosie Bescoby, a clinical animal behaviorist and spokesperson for the United Kingdom’s Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors.
Hyperactivity is another sign of animal stress that people might misread as your pet having a good time.
Give your dog a safe space
The most important thing dog owners can do is make sure your pet has a place where they can relax if visitors and unfamiliar faces become too much.
“Whether you’re celebrating alone or with a large family, it’s important to provide a safe, quiet place for your pets so they can escape the excitement,” said Arce.
Important to remember that what might be fun for human visitors can be overwhelming for pets. During holiday parties, Arce suggested keeping a quiet room for your dog and leaving the TV on, which acts as comforting white noise. Checking on dogs regularly also helps ease stress.
Pets aren’t always good at managing their own emotions, according to experts, so it’s a good idea to make sure your dog takes breaks from the excitement even if it looks like they are enjoying the new company.
Vets also suggest not moving your pet’s bed during the holidays and not rearranging the furniture to fit a Christmas tree in the house – those changes can impact a dog’s perception of the safety of their environment.
Keep up the routine
“Dogs are creatures of habit and thrive on a good routine,” said Dr. Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer for The American Kennel Club. “We also know that dogs ‘pick up’ on the feelings of their owners.”
That means if you’re feeling the stress from party planning, hosting guests or traveling, your dog will likely feel it too. Klein suggests making sure your dog has had plenty of exercise before any gatherings and introducing guests to the dog slowly.
It’s also a good idea to walk your dog like usual on Christmas and other holidays and to make the most of that calm part of the day, Bescoby added. The same advice goes for keeping up your dog’s food routine.
“A one-off thing is fine for Christmas day, but generally speaking, I would suggest keeping with the same food,” said Bescoby, adding that the best kind of holiday treat for a dog is a chew toy or item that will keep them occupied and settled during the holiday bustle.
Training is key
For dogs that experience issues when separated from their owners, some simple training can help.
Teaching a dog to sit and stay is essential preparation for leaving them alone in the house, said Dr. Katherine Houpt, emeritus professor of animal behavior at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
If your dog gets anxious when you leave, she suggests teaching the dog to sit and stay while you leave the room for a few seconds at a time. The dog will learn that you always come back, and you can gradually increase the time your dog sits while you’re out of sight. Downplaying when you leave and enter the house can also help train dogs to be less anxious, Houpt said.
“You don’t want to make that the high point of the dog’s day,” Houpt said. “So when you walk in, you pretend you don’t have a dog…until he is calm, you shouldn’t give him any direct attention.”
The American Kennel Club suggests talking to your veterinarian or a certified trainer about basic obedience training before any stressful holiday situations arise.
Medication can help – but ask your vet
For pets experiencing prolonged anxiety, it’s a good idea to talk to a vet. Prescription anti-anxiety medications may help, especially for traveling, but it’s important to remember that no two dogs are the same and a vet should be consulted about prescriptions and dosages.
Pheromone products and CBD oil can also help calm animals, according to experts, but they recommend consulting a vet before giving your pet anything.
“The use of CBD in treating anxiety is anecdotal as there is no scientific data on its correct dose for dogs or its effects. Additionally, CBD products are not yet regulated — meaning consistency and purity are not always validated,” Klein said. “Your veterinarian can help you determine if CBD oil might be a good treatment for your dog’s anxiety, as well as discuss different products, possible side effects and risks.”
Other products on the market may also help dogs with anxiety, such as weighted blankets. Arce said thunder blankets won’t cause any harm to try, but they might not help every dog.
Moving environments can also cause dogs to experience stress and fear.
“For many dogs, this may be their first holiday gathering with ‘outside’ people, since many were adopted or purchased in the past 18 months during the pandemic,” Klein said. “The additional sounds, people, smells may contribute to anxiety in some dogs.”
Experts say it’s important to make coming into a new home as easy as possible for pets. If you already have a pet in your home, it’s helpful to introduce the new dog in neutral territory, such as outside on a walk. The same concept applies to visiting friends’ or family members’ dogs.
Klein also noted that anxious dogs may try to dart or run away from home, so it’s a good idea to make sure all pets have permanent identification, such as a microchip with updated owner information.
“Make sure if you’re giving a pet (as a gift) for Christmas that it’s something that you have researched for a while, don’t make an impulse decision,” Arce added. “This is a responsibility for life.”