Helping Your Pet Through The Holidays

By Jennie K. Willis, PhD as published in the Coloradoan in November 2012

It seems like just a few weeks ago it was sunny and 70 and shorts weather… and now the holidays are upon us! Thanksgiving is a time for family getting together and your pet may be reacting to schedule changes and new people in the house. Keep in mind that pets sometimes develop their own coping strategies for handling stress unless we help them find acceptable outlets for their anxiety during these changes.

Try to keep your pet’s routine consistent through the holidays. Continue their feeding and exercise program as normally as possible. If you need more time away from home when you might normally be home, consider adding enrichment. Think about food toys that can deliver reinforcement in response to your pet’s effort. These are a valuable tool to stress reduction as well as entertaining!

If your pet is afraid of people, you might notice the following signs when visitors are at your house:

  • Barking, growling, hissing or hiding when people enter the home
  • Inappropriate urination or defecation, especially in out of the way places or on visitor’s items
  • Destruction or exploration of trash, household or personal items

You can help your fearful pet by:

  • Limiting their exposure to transitions.  Put your pet away when people are coming and going. Wait to introduce them to the group until the group is complete and everyone is sitting down.
  • Giving special treats to guests to drop or toss to your pet. These treats should be really valuable and something your pet loves but may not get often. Remember, it may be too scary for your pet to approach these people and eat a treat from their hand, but a dropped treat can create a positive emotional memory with the guest that your pet will remember. Often, after eating a few from the ground, your pet may start treating a guest like a family member and take the remainder of the treats from their hand.
  • Creating a safe room for them if guests are not going to stay long and an introduction doesn’t make sense. Put on music and some white noise. Consider dog appeasing pheromone (DAP) or Feliway for cats to help alleviate anxiety. Provide food enrichment.
  • Giving your pet frequent breaks in their safe room. It may be stressful for your pet to be around people for long periods of time, even if you are making it pleasant. Retiring for a little relaxation time can help things go smoothly and make it more enjoyable for your pet.

Keep in mind that all guests don’t always follow instructions. Family members may be intent on making friends with your pet in the wrong way, despite your best advice. Be your pet’s advocate and they may need to be separated from the group for a while to maintain progress.  If your pet’s behavior is the reason you haven’t invited family and friends over this holiday, definitely consult a professional because this behavior can and does improve!

Dr. Jennie Willis teaches classes in animal behavior at Colorado State University and provides consultation for owners about their pet’s problem behaviors.  For more information about consultation, seminars and classes please visit

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