Every year, veterinary behaviorist Lisa Radosta hears the same question from clients: What am I going to do with my pet when I have people over for the Thanksgiving holiday?
We all love our pets and consider them members of the family, but they have special needs when it comes to feasting, family and friends. Even the most social of pets can be overwhelmed by Thanksgiving holiday togetherness, buzz and hubbub, not to mention tempted by tasty foods that are just waiting to be sampled. All of these elements can create chaos, but taking some simple steps can help to relieve fear, anxiety and stress for your pet and yourself.
Start planning now. It’s not too early to consider the best ways to accommodate your pet’s needs and possibly those of your guests. In fact, says veterinary behaviorist Lisa Radosta, a few weeks is plenty of time to prep your pet by refreshing table manners—or even teaching new ones—as well as considering ways to ensure that your pet is involved in the holiday but not underfoot. Here’s how.
If you’re like most people, Thanksgiving is a flurry of shopping, chopping and cooking. Consider setting up a sanctuary room for Rex or Romeow where they can stay out of the way but with all their creature comforts. Other options include some time at doggie day care or a pet spaw, or asking a nearby friend or family member who’s not cooking if your pet can hang out at their place for a few hours.
Keep food well out of pet reach, especially if you have a counter-surfing canine or high-jumping cat. That’s especially important if you have items that could cause your pet to upchuck, have diarrhea or develop pancreatitis.
“Don’t put the fat trimmings in the garbage unless it is completely sealed,” says veterinarian Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and a veteran of treating pet holiday mishaps. “The pet can smell it and get right into it.” One family he knows of had to place the garbage on top of the refrigerator to keep it out of reach of a curious visiting Greyhound.
It’s okay to give pets a small taste of lean turkey, green beans (no onions, please) or plain baked sweet potatoes. Those things taste good and are good for them, and it’s fun to let your pet partake of the special foods on hand. Just remember that what might seem like a small amount to you could well be an enormous one for your dog or cat. Limit tastes to a spoonful or so, depending on the size of your pet, especially if he tends to have a sensitive stomach.
Ban begging. Nobody enjoys having a pet pawing at them, jumping on them at the table or breathing on them while they eat. In these weeks before the holiday season kicks in, teach your pet to go to a mat and stay on it when asked or during meals.
“The easiest way to do that is with a Treat and Train device,” Dr. Radosta says. “You just push the remote and a treat comes out.”
Your pet learns to stay on the mat because good things happen there, and it keeps him out of the kitchen and away from the table, but he’s still able to be with the family.
During the festivities, make sure your pet has an escape route from the crowds, especially if the beer and wine are flowing. When people become less inhibited, pets may feel uncomfortable with their behavior. Don’t force them to interact if they don’t want to.
It’s okay if your normally sociable cat wants to hide under the bed. Dr. Radosta says that’s where her own cat will be.
“Even though he knows every single person who’s coming over,” she says, “it’s just that there are so many coming over at once. It’s a lot for him; he’s kind of noise-sensitive.”
Remember that pets can be territorial. If your pet has a special mat or bed where he’s supposed to stay, ask guests to give him a wide berth so he doesn’t feel crowded. Avoid reaching down to pet them on the head, startling them when they have a high-value treat or toy, or are sleeping or have just awoken, Dr. Becker says.
Finally, if you have a fearful or anxious pet who stresses easily, talk to your veterinarian at least two weeks before the big day about whether medication may help.
“The veterinarian may want you to test-drive the medication,” Dr. Radosta says. “You don’t want to administer it for the first time when your veterinarian is closed.”
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