Pets thrive on routine. They know what time to wake up, when to take their daily nap, when you leave and come home from work, when it’s time to go outside, and when they can expect to eat. A predictable routine helps pets feel safe and comfortable, but when you upset the daily grind, they can feel stressed. Stress causes a myriad of physical, emotional, and behavioral problems and makes your pet feel on-edge and unable to relax. 

We value the holidays for time spent with family and friends, seeing our kids come home from college or visit with their own young families, and hosting or attending seasonal celebrations. While your pet probably enjoys seeing familiar faces, household changes, upset routines, moved furniture or decorations, and strangers in their environment may lead to anxiety. The Desert Vet team understands how stress can impact our pets, and we offer tips to help your pet relax and enjoy the holiday season.

How stress affects pets

Fear, stress, and anxiety are instinctual responses that prepare the body for fight or flight. The stress response originates in the brain’s amygdala (i.e., a primal area associated with strong emotions). When the amygdala responds to something frightening, the rational, thinking brain turns off, and your pet may panic or lash out. People can learn anxiety and stress coping strategies, such as deep breathing, meditation, or re-framing, but your pet’s brain operates on a more primal level, and they need your help to calm down. Chronic, low-level stress elevates your pet’s cortisol levels and can affect their physical and emotional health. 

Acute or chronic stress may cause your pet to become anxious, hyper-vigilant, or unusually aggressive, develop compulsive behaviors (e.g., licking or circling), or to regress in training and housebreaking. A stressed pet may cower and hide, withdraw, or lash out and bite. Stress hormones can result in immune suppression, inflammatory conditions, vomiting or diarrhea, appetite changes, or chronic infections. Stress is especially damaging for cats, who often experience bladder inflammation, bladder infections, GI problems, or upper respiratory infections. The worst-case scenario is a stressed male cat who develops a blocked urethra from inflammation, and requires emergency care and hospitalization.

To reduce the effects of stress and minimize long-term or acute illness risks, consider taking the following steps during the holidays:

#1: Keep your pet’s routine consistent
Strive to keep your pet’s routine the same, despite holiday household disruptions. Each day, wake your pet, feed them, exercise them, and put them to bed at the same times, and spend time with them actively playing or simply sitting together.

#2: Avoid moving your pet’s belongings
You may be tempted to move your cat’s litter box or your dog’s water dish to accommodate guests, but these small changes can send your pet into a tailspin. Place decorations strategically, so you don’t have to move furniture or pet items.

#3: Provide a safe, quiet space for stressed pets
If your pet does not already have a quiet room or crate, set up an escape area with comfortable bedding and familiar toys should they feel stressed. Choose a room with familiar comforts that’s off the beaten path, such as a favorite family member’s bedroom. Confine your pet in this space if you are concerned that they may lash out at guests or become overstimulated. Outgoing pets can come and go.

#4: Instruct guests and partygoers on proper pet interactions
If your pet will mingle with guests in your home, instruct them to let your pet choose when to initiate and end interactions. Young children may need extra counseling and supervision to ensure proper pet handling and safety.

#5: Manage your own anxiety
Pets can pick up on your emotional state when the in-laws arrive or you are preparing a holiday meal. If you feel anxious and stressed, they will too. Ensure you address your own holiday stress with strategies such as exercise, mindfulness, or breathing exercises that you know work for you.

#6: Use anxiety-reducing pet products
Body wraps, pheromone sprays, herbal and other over-the-counter supplements, and calming music can help your pet relax. Ask your veterinarian to recommend species-appropriate, safe, effective products.

#7: Try prescription pet medications
For pets who tend toward panic, or have a history of stress-related health problems, consider pre-emptive treatment with a short anxiety medication course, or situational use. Your veterinarian can recommend the medication or combination that’s best for your individual pet’s needs.

#8: Microchip your pet and monitor the exits
Panicked pets may try to escape from home during a stressful event or when they hear loud noises, such as New Year’s Eve fireworks. Ensure these pets are properly contained in their quiet space, and watch the doors to ensure they can’t slip out as guests come and go. Pets who run away have a better chance of being returned home if they are microchipped, a procedure your veterinarian can perform quickly during an outpatient visit.

With thoughtful planning, you can reduce your pet’s holiday stress and help keep them happy and healthy year-round. Call to schedule a visit with the Desert Vet team if you notice that your pet’s behavior or habits change after a stressful holiday event, or if you’d like to get ahead of expected anxiety. Our veterinarians can rule out a serious, emergency condition and help you create a treatment plan to combat the physical and emotional effects of your pet’s holiday stress.