Managing Stress & Separation Anxiety in Dogs & Cats During the Holidays
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As we return to our usual holiday traditions, we’re all adjusting at our own pace––even our pets! We’re catching up with friends and family. Welcoming larger groups into our homes. And as a result, we might also be dealing with stressed dogs and cats as these whirlwind celebrations reach a fever pitch.
Stressed cats, anxious dogs, and busy holidays don’t always mix well. So how can you provide emotional support to the pets who show us the same kindness? Whether you’re hosting the holiday festivities or visiting somewhere with your pet, we’ve collected useful tips and tricks to help keep them (and you!) more relaxed.
What is pet anxiety?
Signs of stress and separation anxiety in dogs & cats
Does my dog have anxiety? Is my cat stressed? It’s tough to catch every nuanced behavior in our pets, but monitoring their behavior can tell us how particular situations make them feel––especially in unique circumstances during the holiday season. It’s not abnormal for our pets to experience more anxiety due to the new faces, environments, noises, smells, and routines during the holidays.
So how do dogs and cats tell us they’re in emotional distress? Let’s start with our canine friends. Stressed dog body language might look like:
- Cowering or hiding
- Destructive behavior
- Urinating in the house
Critical signs of stress in a dog can happen during a stressful event. However, research suggests dogs may have "episodic memory," which means they can recall specific events. So if your dog seems anxious when confronted with the same trigger (e.g., people, places, sounds), their anxiety behaviors might return.
Signs of stress in cats might include:
- Reduced appetite
- Increased vocalization
- Flattening or lowering tail
- Urinating outside of the litter box
- Aggression toward humans or other pets
Some of these behaviors might be normal for your pet. So how can you tell if they’re related to anxiety? If any of these behaviors are present amidst changes to routine, the arrival of houseguests, or other alterations to their daily environment, they could be related to stress and anxiety.
How to keep pets calm during the holidays
Are you wondering how to calm a stressed dog or cat during the holiday hubbub? It might take a little extra effort, but the payoff for you, your pet, and your guests will be well worth it!
Try to stick to your pet’s routine
Dogs and cats are very much creatures of habit and routine. Any small changes to what they’re used to can put them on high alert and increase their anxiety levels. You’ll likely be busier than usual during the holiday season, so keeping your pet’s feeding and exercise schedule as consistent as possible can help preemptively minimize stress.
Introduce your pet to groups of people and/or strangers
If your pet joined your family within the last few years, they may not be accustomed to being around large groups of people. As a form of exposure therapy (exposing the pet to an anxiety source), try bringing them with you to places where you know there will be strangers or small crowds. Focus on reassuring your pet with extra love to show them that these situations are not a threat, and consider using tasty calming chews to ease their anxiety.
If visiting a friend’s house, stop by a few days before
This may not always be possible depending on how far you’re traveling for the holidays––but if your destination is nearby and your pet has never been there before, it might be a good idea to let them sniff around the house before the big day.
By allowing your anxious pet to get the lay of the land before the house is full of people, they may feel slightly less overwhelmed on the day of the holiday or big event. It will also allow your dog or cat to meet any other pets in the house under less stressful circumstances and when you can give your full attention to helping them acclimate.
Make note of where your pet enjoys spending time
Set up a quiet, safe space for your pet on the day of your holiday gathering. Where should this safe space be? Consider where your cat or dog spends most of their time under nonstressful circumstances. Does your cat like to curl up on the top of your dresser? Does your dog enjoy napping on the rug in your bedroom? Do they willingly use their pet bed or crate?
Check with your veterinarian
If you know your pet suffers from anxiety, try talking to your veterinarian before the holiday to get professional advice on how best to manage your dog or cat’s anxiousness. Your vet knows your pet’s history and can provide specific recommendations based on your fur baby’s unique temperament and needs.
Reduce the risk of separation anxiety
Planning on leaving your pet at home for the holidays? There’s nothing more stressful than figuring out who should watch your pet and how hands-on they should be.
Most cats can be alone for up to 24-48 hours as long as they have access to plenty of fresh food and clean water. You’ll also want to ensure no toxic plants, foods, or other ingestible items are left around for them to inspect.
Separation anxiety in dogs is a different animal; most dogs rely on our company as part of their daily routine. Being alone isn’t normal for dogs–natural pack animals–even if they’re domesticated. While cat parents can get away with having a familiar friend drop in to switch out food and water, you’ll need a more involved participant for your canine family member.
Consider asking a trusted friend or relative to stay at your house until you return, or look into fear-free boarding kennels or verified in-home dog sitters if everyone's tied up for the holidays.
Try supportive products designed to help manage pet anxiety
Your veterinarian may recommend calming supplements to support your anxious pet during the holidays. Many products are designed to help anxious pets maintain a more balanced mood in stressful situations. Some include special coats or vests (similar to weighted blankets for humans), sprays, and even herbal-infused calming supplements.
Setting up for the big day
The day has come for holiday festivities––all that’s left is to get your pet comfortable! Make yourself a mental checklist so you’ll know how to prep your pet for a day of potential triggers when the big day arrives.
Exercise pets a little more than usual
A longer or more vigorous exercise session in the morning can help tire out your pet, allowing them to relax or nap more easily throughout the day.
This additional exercise could be in the form of a longer walk for your dog (bring the whole family for some morning bonding time before you open presents!) or carving out an extra 15 minutes for active playtime with your cat. Give your cat a little catnip, get their favorite wand cat toy or laser pointer ready, and give them your undivided attention for a little play session!
Set up your pet’s safe space
Before any guests arrive (or soon after arriving at your destination), set up your pet’s safe space. This should include their bed, blankets, favorite toys or chews, and food and water bowls.
Make sure the safe space is in a low-traffic area of the house and easily accessible to your dog or cat. They may venture out to survey things, but let them retreat if uncomfortable.
You can also use a pheromone diffuser or spray around cat spaces (note that diffusers need a few hours to warm up before use) or a calming spray to spritz on your dog’s fur or bedding.
Keeping pets calm amidst holiday festivities
So the party started––now what? Here’s how to calm a stressed dog or cat throughout the day.
Offer calming supplements or treats
A calming behavior supplement with vet-recommended ingredients like Lavender, L-Theanine, and Tryptophan can be given to your pet a few times throughout the day. A soft chew supplement can feel like a treat or reward for their bravery with added calming benefits. Just be sure to pay attention to the recommended dose and frequency for your pet’s weight!
Ensure your pet has unimpeded access to their safe space
If your pet has retreated to its dedicated comfort zone, ask your guests to give them space while they adjust to the arrival of guests. If you’re celebrating at someone else’s house, make sure you’re regularly going to visit them as reassurance that their favorite human is still there.
Visit and monitor their mood
Look out for any signs that your pet is getting stressed or over-anxious. If you notice signs that your cat or dog is stressed during holiday celebrations, allow them to spend some time alone in their safe space to help them calm down. Allow your pet to spend more time by your side and provide continuous reassurance until signs of stress subside.
Give lots of love and affection
With the hustle and bustle of the day’s festivities, pets can easily slip into the background ––especially if you’re on hosting duty! Anxious pets can be quickly soothed by close contact with their human, so regular check-ins (and snuggles) can help them feel more secure.
Enjoying yourself and your family (pet included) is what the holidays are all about. With these tips in mind, the entire family can enjoy each other’s company in a way that feels good for pets and people alike. Happy holidays!
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