With many friends and families preparing to get together over the festive season, I wanted share my top tips for keeping pets safe at Christmas during this fun, but often stressful time.
With almost 70% of Australian households now being home to over 28 million pets, almost half having at least one dog1 and a third housing at least one cat2, Australian pet ownership is at an all-time high*.
A perfect storm
Unfortunately also on the rise, are owners reporting some difficulty with pet ownership (79% compared to 66% in 2019)*, and trainers across the country seeing the impact that the pandemic puppy boom is now having on dog behaviour, due to a lack of puppy training and socialisation services, particularly as many of those puppies enter their ‘troublesome’ teenage years.
The way I see it, we’re now entering a perfect storm situation, particularly when it comes to keeping pets safe at Christmas with more people coming and going and the fact that many first time dog pet owners and new puppy parents were unable access the support and services they needed at a critical time of their pet’s development.
Many of the pandemic puppies are now also reaching adolescence – a time we often see behaviour changes challenge even the calmest of dog owners, including increased energy levels, destructive chewing and digging, barking and jumping up to get what they want.
We also start to see frustration and even aggression emerge due to fear and anxiety, often due to a lack of positive socialisation and obedience training, poor breeding and good leadership.
Combined with the stress of busy households, more people in the home, noisy events and extreme heat, the festive season really can be a time that people and pets are at a higher risk of anxiety or injury, especially children who can’t read the warning signs pets give them when feeling uncomfortable so, by keeping pets safe at Christmas, you’ll be keeping other people and children safe too.
Even the most placid of dogs and cats can react when they are under stress, so preparing our pets now for visitors and giving them a safe and calm place to go when they are feeling overwhelmed is key. Particularly when it comes to keeping pets safe at Christmas.
Why dogs and small children should not be left alone
This is why I implore any dog owner, not just over this period, but at all times of the year, to NEVER leave young children alone with a dog, ALWAYS watch any interactions between children and dogs and KNOW the subtle signs that a dog and cat displays when they are not feeling comfortable.
Far too often I see parents allowing children to touch, hug, corner or lay on dogs and cats that are giving clear warning signs that they do not want this interaction, then one day the dog (or cat) reaches their limit, or could be feeling sore or unwell, and “suddenly” barks, lunges or even goes to bite to get their message across.
Top Tips for keeping pets safe at Christmas
- Slowly introduce new people into your home, using treats and positive reinforcement training to create a calm, positive experience as someone arrives.
- If your dog reacts to the doorbell, have people text you upon their arrival to avoid ringing the bell.
- Put your dog on a lead and ask people to take off hats, hoodies and sunglasses, move slowly, avoid staring at the dog or interacting with them if the dog is barking, jumping or acting in appropriately.
- People should NEVER put their hand out when meeting a dog. This is a sure way to get bitten, despite what you have been led to believe. Visitors should invite the dog to them with a pat to the leg and if the dog doesn’t respond or moves away, leave them alone! Never force interactions.
- If a dog does approach people should talk quietly, no sudden movements, and praising good behaviour.
- Provide your pet with a safe room or area to go to if they are feeling overwhelmed with their bed, blankets, toys, water, food or a long-lasting chew – and that no one is allowed to interrupt them there.
- Cats should have a high up place to escape to, or they may like to escape and hide under the bed. Let them be!
- Use pheromone appeasing sprays or diffusers in the area specific to dogs and cats. You could even pull down the blinds and put on some low music to block out the noise if things get a bit rowdy. You could even try Dog TV – yes dogs have their own TV station too now!
If your dog is very anxious in general, do speak to your Veterinarian or a Vet Behaviourist about longer and short term, medication options.
A stressed dog simply cannot take in new information, so medication is often a vital part of any real behaviour change program and should be something owners of anxious dogs should talk to their vet about, particularly when it comes to keeping pets safe at Christmas and free from stress.
Other tips for keeping pets safe at Christmas
Toxic food and other hazards
Between the pork crackling, ham and turkey fat just to name a few, there is no end of fatty foods on offer over Christmas.
Pancreatitis is a very serious, painful and life-threatening disease which tends to increase over the Christmas period. So, being strict about the food your pet gets over this time is an important factor when it comes to keeping pets safe at Christmas.
Not all family members will head your warnings ,so keep dogs away from dining areas when food is around…and do not give in to puppy dog eyes!
• Toys and Batteries – Dogs and particularly puppies just love to chew, so ensure kids toys, particularly the small items, batteries or plush toys with plastic eyes, are kept well out of reach. Be mindful of cheap, battery operated dog toys as well and the threats they pose.
• Do not feed fatty foods, salty processed meats or other table scraps.
• Alcohol is toxic to dogs and can cause seizures. Even if your dog has been fine before licking the froth off your beer, you are playing Russian Roulette with their health.
• Christmas pudding and brandy custard contain a wide range of toxic ingredients to dogs.
• Chocolates/lollies – Chocolate is toxic to dogs, the darker it is the worse it is, whilst high levels of sugar in lollies are also harmful for pets.
• Macadamia nuts, grapes and raisins are ften found in many foods and on platters around the festive season. These nuts and fruits are highly toxic to dogs, so keep them well away from curious noses.
Keep pets cool in the heat
On hot days I am still dismayed at how many people are out walking or running their dogs in the heat with no regard to the pain or damage the hot paths and roads do to our dog’s paws, not to mention the risk of heatstroke.
- Always walk dogs early in the morning and in the evenings on a hot day. A good way to check if the ground is comfortable for your dog is to see if you can comfortably leave your hands on the road or footpath for 5 seconds without it feeling hot.
- Put sunscreen on the sensitive or exposed areas such as nose, ears or bellies, especially where skin is exposed.
- Ensure pets have plenty of shade (at all times of day) and cool, fresh water.
- NEVER leave your dog in the car, even with the windows down and in the shade, on a day over 20 degrees.
- If your dog is looking uncomfortably hot, cool them down with tap water (not iced), but you can give them ice blocks to lick or in their water bowl.
Over the festive season, fireworks are also another threat to our dogs, along with thunderstorms. For tips to help keep your dog safe on NYE, check out my article on Fireworks Safety HERE.
* Animal Medicines Australia’s Pets in Australia Study 2022
About the Author: Lara Shannon is a NDTF certified dog behaviourist and trainer, pet food nutrition specialist, Executive Producer and Host of Pooches at Play on Channel 10 and editor of Poochesatplay.com. Lara also runs her own dog training business in Melbourne’s Bayside area and is the Author of World of Dogs and Eat, Play, Love Your Dog