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Reducing Stress at Christmas for Pets

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Jane Davidson RVN veterinary-nurses, Veterinary Surgeon

I’ve already said I’m at times a bit Bah Humbug over the festive season, to the point I re-named it the ‘Pagan Mid-Winter Festival of Light’ for a while. Whatever you call it there is something comforting about knowing there is a break coming to the dark nights and cold weather where we will fill our homes with pretty lights and gifts and food.

Judging from the adverts on TV leading up to the festivities it’s also a time to buy new furniture as well as gifts. Apparently, if you’re having family over to sit at a table groaning under the weight of festive food you need a new table, chairs, and sofa.

It’s all starting to sound a bit like hard work to me! Christmas can be hard work for us, but it can also be stressful for our pets. Their routines change, new things arrive in the house and often new people too. Add to this the change in weather, different activity levels and fireworks and we have the recipe for pet disasters. At the very least for many dogs, their owners get them their annual haircut at the groomers, always a stressful event!

I have seen the people who have their pets rehomed/euthanised before Christmas as they’ve toileted on the floor and with the increased activity of the season the owner can’t cope. It makes working at Christmas even more stressful for us in the vet industry.

What many owners don’t consider is what has caused the pet to do this? As vet nurses we know it could be a medical or behavioural cause and both can be treated. At Christmas, there are many triggers that can stress your pet so it’s well worth knowing what they are.

Darker nights

The change in daylight hours affects us and our pets more than we realise. It changes routines as walks change location or time to get the best of the daylight or avoid the park in the dark. Cats have their hunting instincts peaking at dawn and dusk so have their active periods closer to each other than in summer, and often less prey around. Rabbits have less time outside and will need hutches moved into well-insulated sheds and garages or may even be moved indoors.

If we had to move home or change our most basic routines every 6 months we would struggle so it’s no wonder our pets do.

Noise/fireworks

Yes, it’s back to fireworks. As the nights get darker fireworks look prettier and there seems to be a never-ending list of events where they are expected, including Christmas. It sometimes feels like we have fireworks from Halloween to Chinese New Year. Head to some other great R4V blogs on fireworks and noise phobias for some advice and help.

Changing routine

Having visitors over Christmas and New Year is standard. It’s the main holiday where people travel to be with family and friends for a short period of time. I’ll just say – not everyone does this so if you don’t do this please DO NOT succumb to the pressure of family gatherings. One way I reduce stress at Christmas is to avoid any family event! Yes, I’m Bah Humbug but me and the pets are happy and not stressed!

What the travel, new places, new people and even just people visiting your home does is create stress for your pets (and you). There are new smells and noises and often a change to the pets sleeping arrangements. All things that can increase anxiety for pets.

Everything is new

It’s not just the influx of festive gifts that bring stress, but this needs to buy new furniture or carpets to show homes off to their best. We know for pets that the smell of their home is important to their wellbeing so an influx of the strong smell of new furniture can be overwhelming for them.

We know people don’t want cats to scratch new furniture or have dogs chew chair legs, so we need distraction techniques to help.

What can we do?

The advice on what people can do to help avoid a stressed pet at Christmas is very similar to the advice for stress from fireworks or noise. It’s important to acknowledge the stress happens – owners won’t resolve a problem the6 can’t see.

Prevention is better than cure.

Working in advance will help hugely so you can extend your fireworks stress relievers on to Christmas. Pheromone or aromatherapy plug-ins or sprays are a good starting point.

Create a safe space that will not be moved or altered during any other changes. This is like the crate or safe space you provide for firework fear, but it stays longer and in the same place. This can also make it easier to work with new visitors, especially children who may not live with pets, to say that this is the pets space and they are to be left alone in this space.

Toys and distractions from stressful events are always helpful. Chew toys or treat dispensers for Cats, dogs, and rabbits all provide a way to play and get rewarded with little need for human interaction. Hollie doesn’t chew, or play with toys, but she does love a cat treat ball. Dog versions are a little big for her but the cat one works well. If Hollie can learn to enjoy a toy, then I think any pet can!

Finally, make Christmas as stress-free for you and your pet by having the Christmas YOU want, not the one the adverts on TV seem to think you want. Reduce the spending, reduce the stress, and enjoy the company of your pets – they aren’t here for enough Christmases as it is, so make sure you take some time to have your own little festive celebration with your furry family too.

Happy Pagan Mid-Winter Festival of Light from my family to yours!

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