Christmas is typically a time for celebrating and spending time with loved ones. But while we party, give lavish presents, and visit our families, we can sometimes overlook how some very important family members — our pets — might be affected.
We should give special consideration at this time of year to the animals we love as their lives can be unknowingly thrown into turmoil for several days, or even weeks.
The Christmas holiday period is often a time when our routines change; late nights, leaving the house to visit relatives, and going on holiday. Pets don’t understand our complicated lives, and rely on a simple routine for happiness. This can be a recipe for trouble.
Parties involve noise, lots of people descending on their territory and unusual human behaviour, such as excessive shouting and fireworks. In much of northern Australia, Christmas time coincides with storm season, exacerbating the risks to pets.
It’s important to make sure your pets are identified in case they escape. Better still, have a quiet area for them to retreat to. Tips on helping your pets get through the fireworks and a thunderstorm season are available from the RSPCA.
If you plan to go away, having a pet minder come to the house is usually the best option, as leaving pets alone for long periods will cause added stress. Toys which trickle feed the animal or frozen water in milk cartons can keep them occupied when the owners are away for short stints.
Sending a pet to a kennel or cattery for an extended stay should only be considered if a suitable minder cannot be found, as the change in environment can be similarly stressful for the animal. If you do choose this option, the facility should be carefully inspected to make sure it is set up with the best interests of the animal in mind.
You can prepare your pet for their temporary new home by making sure vaccinations are up to date, and taking them for short stays before Christmas. They should arrive with any medications and specific food. And it is best for all involved not to prolong the parting, however guilty you may feel leaving them.
The silly season also brings with it many increased risks to pets around the house that we may be completely unaware of.
For example, while many foods we eat at Christmas may seem like a delicious special treat, they can actually be quite dangerous for animals. Poisoning is most common from chocolate, lollies, Christmas pudding/cake, grapes, sultanas, raisins, coffee grounds, alcohol, salt, onions, avocado, garlic, macadamia nuts, anything containing the sweetener xylitol (e.g. gum, candy, or breath fresheners), cooked bones, and anything with chilli in it.
Many people like to give their pets a present at Christmas, but it should be suitable, and the pet should not be allowed to eat the wrapping paper or string. As many of us know, our animal friends also seem to be curiously drawn to Christmas tree decorations such as tinsel, ribbons, balls, lights, edible chocolates, and candy canes, which can be dangerous if consumed. Snow globes, too, can be deadly as they may contain anti-freeze.
And be careful when adding preservatives, such as aspirin, to a Christmas tree’s water, as pets may drink it (better still, don’t use aspiring: it doesn’t work on trees). In fact, many plants and flowers commonly used as decorations or gifts at Christmas are also potentially harmful, including holly, mistletoe, amaryllis, poinsettia, and lilies (which are deadly to cats).
If your pet has consumed any of these things, symptoms to watch out for are vomiting, diarrhoea, and decreased appetite and weight loss.
Other things to be mindful of are loose cords, light strands, and electrical wires, which can look like tempting toys, especially for adventurous puppies and kittens looking for things to chew.
Giving Animals As Gifts
Giving animals as gifts is understandable, and can bring a lot of joy to the family over the festive season and beyond. But while research has shown that animals presented as gifts are no more likely to be abandoned than other animals, it’s still important to think carefully about the needs of everyone involved, including the intended pet.
Animal shelters, for instance, caution about giving pets at Christmas time as it does not give the recipient time to consider the implications of taking on a new family member. For instance, exotic pets, such as snakes and lizards, require special consideration and should need the person’s consent.
One way to overcome the risk of rejection or neglect is to give a voucher for pet purchase, redeemable at shelters, or giving a toy animal with a message that it will be replaced by a live animal at a suitable time.
It’s also important to get the animal from a good source, taking care to avoid animals from puppy or kitten farms, where conditions for the animals are generally poor. Buying from an animal shelter is best, where there is usually a large range of breeds and ages to choose from, together with health guarantees for the animals purchased, and careful behaviour checks.
Our Pets Should Enjoy Christmas, Too
There are ways to make sure pets enjoy Christmas rather than it being a stressful time each year. Suitable treats can be provided with their regular food. Because people have more free time, we can spend some extra quality time with our pets by cuddling on the sofa, brushing them, playing games, or going for extra walks.
Let’s not be selfish this Christmas, remembering not only the people in the world that are less fortunate than ourselves, but also the many cats, dogs, and other animals that need a home and rely on us to ensure the festive season is a happy and healthy one.
About The Authors
Clive Phillips, Professor of Animal Welfare, Centre for Animal Welfare and Ethics, The University of Queensland and Sarah Zito, Research Co-ordinator at the Centre for Animal Welfare and Ethics, The University of Queensland.