Ensuring Happy Holidays With Your Dog

(Originally written for DogWatch, a newsletter for the general public from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine)

I really look forward to and enjoy the holidays, but I also worry about what effect these might have on my dog. He’s ten now and it seems that he’s as likely to experience post-holiday let-down as I am. Am I just over-reacting or is this possible?

Although most who speak of post-holiday let-down refer to a human phenomenon, the same elements that may cause people to feel out of sorts or down in the dumps at that time could certainly affect our pets, too. To understand how this might happen, let’s compare normal and holiday activities for a typical owner we’ll call Tammy and her dog, Softi.

Throughout most of the year, Softi leads a relatively consistent life. During the week Tammy gets up at 6:00 a.m., then feeds and briefly walks her pet. Upon her return at 5:00 p.m., the two of them eat a leisurely meal followed by a walk around the neighborhood which culminates in a visit to the local park where Softi plays fetch with the children there. Once home again, Tammy reads or watches television while Softi snoozes quietly as her feet. At 10:00, owner and pet retire for the day. The weekend begins with Tammy and Softi sleeping in Saturday, then doing the wide variety of chores necessary to keep Tammy’s household running smoothly. Sunday the two of them laze around the house and/or pursue low-keyed activities that they both enjoy.

From November through New Year’s, however, inconsistency replaces the consistency that characterizes Softi’s life the rest of the year. Instead of coming home immediately after work, Tammy often stops to do some holiday shopping. Not only does this delay Softi’s evening meal, it also shortens his walk and play-time in the park. Other days, Tammy comes home early and the house fills with the scent of holiday food preparation. Softi still may not get his long walk then either, but he samples enough goodies to forget about this if it bothers him. When Tammy’s son, Rob, comes home from college, Softi accompanies him as he jogs, bikes, or hikes almost every day. Softi also often shares tacos, pizza, or other usually forbidden fare with Rob and his friends in the evenings. A week-long visit from Rob’s sister and her new spouse adds even more excitement to the household. But even this pales compared to the arrival of Tammy’s parents and her nephew and his wife with their three young children. Scheduled and unscheduled visits from other relatives and friends who drop in to share some holiday cheer add to the confusion. The holidays conclude with family and friends ushering in the new year amid a cacophony of whistles, bells, and song, followed by the bittersweet farewells to family and friends the next day. Throughout all this, Softi happily bounces from one person to the next, amusing them with his antics and collecting a wide variety of treats as well a band of adoring young children who follow him everywhere and lavish attention upon him.

Such holiday images elicit many positive feelings, but the fact remains that they may create a lot of physical and behavioral stress for even a healthy young adult dog, let alone a pup or a geriatric one. When the excitement that sustained Softi suddenly vanishes, his joints ache, his stomach rolls, and the unaccustomed quiet disorients him. Some pets may succumb to arthritis, gastro-intestinal disturbances, anal gland, or other physical problems. Others become edgy or chew themselves, clothing or furnishings in an attempt to fill the post-holiday void.

However, the lull following the holidays provides the perfect opportunity to get our pets back on track again, too. Instead of pampering Softi, Tammy initiates a moderate feeding and exercise program designed to gradually restore canine energy. Rather than giving in to the blahs, she sprinkles their interactions with confidence-building commands for him to come, sit, or stay to add reliable zest as well as structure to her pet’s life. Better yet, Tammy vows that from now on she’ll implement such a program throughout the festivities to head off those post-holiday blues.

Preventing holiday-related health and behavioral problems in our pets: What more perfect gift could we possibly give them?