Dec. 13, 2021 -- While the upcoming flurry of holiday parties, house guests, and firework celebrations, should be a time for cheer and laughter, they can be incredibly stressful for our pets. New sights and smells, combined with schedule changes and an influx of strangers into the home, can trigger anxiety or aggression resulting in dog bites, if warning signs go unrecognized.
According to a recent CDC study, approximately 1 in 73 Americans are bitten by dogs annually, with 800,000 of those 4.5 million bites requiring medical treatment. And, unfortunately, the majority of these serious incidents occur during the holiday season, reports the Burn and Reconstructive Centers of America (BRCA), a network of specialized reconstructive plastic surgeons.
To ensure your holiday season is every bit merry and bite-free, follow these easy steps:
To protect pets and guests alike, “You need to outthink your pet and think for your guests,” says Mark Brucker, DVM, owner of Acute Veterinary Care of Martinez, GA. “Common sense has to prevail.”
Formulate a plan for your pet well in advance of your first holiday party or trip, as animals need time to adjust to new routines, locations, and strangers.
Have young children? Set aside time to discuss your party plan with them, too. While they might want the family pet to participate in each activity, coach them through your new safety measures.
“Do not anthropomorphize your pet and think, ‘He has to enjoy Christmas with me or else he will be sad,’” Brucker says.
Remind them, your pet will be happiest in a safe place, free from anxiety and loud noises. A hesitant spouse or partner? Let them know you could lose your homeowner’s insurance if your dog bites someone at home!
Play and Obey
Often the busiest time of year, the holidays make it easy to neglect your dog’s regular schedule. Slowly implement necessary modifications a few weeks before your holiday festivities. Make sure to offer plentiful exercise, play time, and rest to keep your dog relaxed and anxiety-free.
No matter if you have a puppy or senior dog, allot time for regular training sessions reminding them of the commands “sit”, “stay”, and “go to your place”, so they are sure to obey when unfamiliar faces enter the home.
Practice tricks with them too. These can be a fun way to “break the ice” with strangers, offering opportunities for positive affirmation with treats for good behavior.
Put Them Away
Ensure your dog has a safe place to relax during holiday gatherings. Crate them in a separate room out of view, and consider placing two or more baby gates or doors between your pet and unsuspecting guests. A sign on the closed door will prevent both your guests and pet from being startled.
If your dog’s personality allows it, try boarding or a pet sitter for overnight or weekend stays. Consider a play date with your selected sitter or board the dog a few times before the holidays to ensure the experience is a happy one.
Puzzle toys, Goodie Bones, KONGs, and Buster Cubes are great options for keeping your dog entertained during holiday festivities. For longevity, prepare and freeze multiple treats before the holiday rush. Let children lend a helping hand. If they know the family pet is entertained in their crate, they are less likely to tamper with your safety measures, thus reducing the risk of injury.
Dog treat inspiration abounds online, so do a quick Google search and get creative! Mixtures of yogurt and fruits like bananas or blueberries, sliced baby carrots, and good, old-fashioned peanut butter are sure to please, while keeping added sugars in check to avoid hyperactivity and caloric spikes. Avoid yogurt or butters with xylitol, as this human-safe sugar substitute is poisonous to dogs.
Be Their Eyes and Ears
Dogs exhibit many symptoms of anxiety to create distance between themselves and a perceived danger before escalating to an attack. These signs, such as barking, panting, and pacing, should not be punished, or ignored.
“The reason a dog continues up the ladder of aggression to a bite is because the owner fails to recognize the early stages of the ladder of aggression — they do not understand the body language,” says Melissa Hartley, a professional animal behavioral consultant in Wagener, SC.
Though punishment may stop unwanted noise for the moment, Hartley says this can lead to later, more serious aggression.
“When you punish away the steps on the ladder of aggression, you no longer get those early warning signs, because the dog has been punished for them in the past, so they go directly to a bite.”
If you cannot remove the dog before guests arrive, get them to a safe, quiet place at the first sign of aggression.
Talk To Your Doctor
If anxious and aggressive episodes become frequent occurrences, talk with your veterinarian about medical solutions. Just as with people, “Aggressive behavior and anxiety in animals are extremely complex,” Brucker says.
Over the counter medications like Benadryl and Zylkene are shown to effectively calm dogs, while prescription drugs like Trazodone and Xanax (alprazolam) offer effective support for anxiety and depression. Dose your dog at least 1 hour before the doorbell begins to ring to ensure the medicine has time to take effect.
If A Bite Occurs
Even with an abundance of caution, accidents can still occur. If a dog bite occurs, remain calm.
Thoroughly clean the puncture wound as soon as possible to kill harmful bacteria. Keep antiseptics like Betadine (Povidone-iodine) on hand for unexpected accidents. With mouths full of bacteria, dog bite wounds pose a high risk of infection if left untreated.
Seek medical attention immediately after a dog bite. To prevent wounds becoming infected or cellulitic, the BRCA suggests prompt care, ensuring doctors have plentiful time and options for repairing damaged nerves, muscles, or tendons.
After successfully treating the wound, seek out the help of a trusted canine behavior consultant. Look for professionals with numerous continuing education credits (specifically on the topics of aggression in dogs) and memberships with associations such as the Pet Professional Guild and the International Association of Animal Behavioral Consultants.
While there are just 50 veterinary behaviorists in the United States, medical doctors with a specialty in animal behavior and able to prescribe medication, there are many more animal behavior consultants, like Melissa, who apply the same scientific methods to their practice without the medical degree, working in tandem with veterinarians to recommend medication.