–By Steve Dale, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant
What’s wrong with these pets acting like Scrooge around the howlidays? Do your dogs bark when company arrives? Does your cat run away and hide? Your pets are not acting out, but are actually anxious. Dogs and cats may not only be scared about so many strangers visiting, but upset by the change in their routine, or both.
During the holidays, our pets’ lives are often upside down. Frazzled families are busy attending to last minute shopping, attempting to keep up with kids’ Christmas parties, and frantically getting the house in order for the big Christmas party. Periodically and unexpectedly, well-meaning friends and neighbors are also dropping by to spread holiday cheer. Meanwhile at work, end-of-year deadlines loom, and many of us are under intense pressure–even if we happen to be working from home. If life is usually crazy, it’s even crazier this time of year.
Of course, some pets are able to go with the flow. But others cope less well with losing the structure of day-to-day life and find the break in their normal routines overwhelming. Because they are so intuitive, if you are stressed, your pets will also pick up on that tension. It can be a lot for them to handle.
Many pets can also be fearful or even terrified with all the company visiting. If the dog barks at visitors, or the cat is frozen with fear under the sofa, this signals that they will need some help during this hectic time. And while it is adaptive and normal for cats to be hesitant about strangers, no pet should be expected to endure the holidays in terror.
Luckily, there are concrete steps you can take to lessen their anxiety….
1. Give your pet a sanctuary
If your dog barks anxiously when company arrives, simply hollering “no” repeatedly is not a solution. The kindest and gentlest response for a pet who cannot cope with a lot of people in their house is to relocate them into a sanctuary room–like a second bedroom, den, or basement. Preferably, you can put them in their sanctuary before anyone even arrives. Then, give them something fun to do. For example, stuff low-fat, low-salt peanut butter inside a Kong toy, or another similar toy, like the many food puzzles on the market. This will give your dog something else to focus on and ease their stress.
2. Pump up the Volume
If your relatives are loudmouths, pump up relaxing background music. Most research indicates classical music or maybe a talk radio station are your best bets. If you want to get fancy and high tech, check out iCalm and their produced tunes for pets, or music for dogs from A Sound Beginning.
3. Use the power of pheromones
Plug in a pheromone diffuser. Adaptil is a copy of a naturally occurring pheromone which helps to moderate anxiety in dogs. Feliway is a copy of the pheromone cats calm themselves with and use to identify as their own, as they rub against our legs or a chair.
4. Try Nutraceuticals
Ask your veterinarian about nutraceuticals, which can be purchased online or through your veterinarian. The positive effects of both Zylkene and Anxitane are supported by scientific evidence. Zylkene contains bovine-sourced hydrolyzed milk protein, an ingredient that has calming properties. Anxitane is a natural extract of green called L-theanine which helps to reduce anxiety.
5. Catnip is Still Cool
While school and low tech, catnip relieves anxiety for many cats (in a very small percent of cats, catnip may instead create an aggressive response).
6. Include your pets in the fun!
Think of indoor activities to keep the pup occupied while you’re wrapping gifts. Dogs love games of hide ‘n seek. If you or the kids are too busy to play along, hide treats or a toy with treats stuffed inside.
7. Keep Them Running
If possible, take time to play with and walk your pets during the holiday season. Exercise will not always resolve all anxiety, but regular exercise in pets (and people) does adjust brain chemistry for the better. Another advantage of playing with your pet, it’s likely to be as much fun for you as it is for them!