Column: Holidays can be stressful to your pet, too


Commentary by John Mikesell

It’s that time of year, holiday time. It’s great, we are all having fun and eating a lot of food that we normally don’t eat (well, most of us).

We can handle it, but not so much your furry friend. We need to be very careful with the food that’s all over the house for the holidays. Some of it can be deadly for the dog or cat. Dark chocolate, grapes or raisins, onions to name a few that can be deadly to your dog or cat.

One we don’t think about is the avocado. It can be dangerous for dogs, especially the pit. I know we joke about bread dough, but bread can swell in the dog’s stomach and cause a decrease in blood flow which can cause death of tissue. Also, as the yeast multiplies, it produces alcohol that can be adsorbed and cause alcohol intoxication.

Xyitol is a non-caloric sweetener used in gum and sugar-free baked goods. In dogs, this can lead to a severe drop in blood sugar levels, leading to seizures and worse. Just be careful.

The holidays can also be very stressful to your pet. Often there are lots of people coming and going. It can be overwhelming to your faithful companion.

Why de-stressing helps

There are many reasons why it’s important to pay attention to stress indicators, including the following: Stress is a universal underlying cause of aggression and it can have a negative impact on the dog’s health. The dog’s ability to learn is impaired when it is stressed. I remember when I first took Izzy to training class; she was so stressed out by the other dogs that she couldn’t concentrate on me or her instructions. Dogs respond poorly to cues when stressed and negative classical conditioning can occur as a result.

There are several signs of stress. I will name a few, but there are many more than we have space for here.

● Anorexia: Stress causes the appetite to shut down. A dog that won’t eat moderate to high value treats may just be distracted or simply not hungry, but this is more often an indicator of stress.

● Avoidance: the dog turns away, shuts down, evades handler’s touch and treats.

● Digestive disturbances: Vomiting and diarrhea can be a sign of illness or stress; the digestive system reacts strongly to stress. Carsickness is often a stress reaction.

● Hyperactivity: a dog exhibits frantic behavior or restless pacing, sometimes misinterpreted as ignoring or” blowing off” the owner.

● Excessive grooming: A dog may lick or chew its paws, legs, flank, tail and genital areas, even to the point of self-mutilation.

Without provocation

Almost every “dog mauls toddler” headline is followed by an article that includes, among other things, these two phrases: The dog was always good with children and the bite was unprovoked.

Most people who think their dogs are good with children don’t realize that their dogs only tolerate children – the dogs are actually stressed in the presence of children, at least to some degree. Dogs who are truly good with children adore them: they don’t just tolerate them. They are delighted to see children and, with wriggling body, wagging tail, and squinty eyes, can’t wait to go see them. With the rare exception of idiopathic aggression – aggression for which there is no discernible cause – every bite is provoked from the dog’s perspective. We as humans may feel the bite wasn’t justified or appropriate, but rest assured the dog felt justified in biting.

What you can do

Observe your dog closely and make a list of the behaviors it manifests when stressed. Watch for those subtle ones. Study the list to determine which stressors you can remove from your dog’s environment. Create a plan to change the dog’s association from negative to positive with as many of the stressors as possible. Watch other dogs you come across and make note of their signs of stress to improve your stress observation skills.

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