Handling a pet who may get overwhelmed and stressed in a party situation.
By Rona Cherry
Updated Sept. 22, 2022
My table was set, the living room rug was vacuumed and furniture polished. In other words, I was ready for my holiday party. But there was one detail I hadn’t anticipated: my cat, Ike. Usually he was well-behaved and eager to make friends with new visitors. But on this night, for no apparent reason, he took an instant dislike to one of my female guests. He summoned his inner lion, growled menacingly at her, and looked ready to lunge if she took a step. Apologizing, I managed to pick Ike up and move him to the bedroom. I then returned to my shaken guest who was being comforted by others at my party.
Nothing dampens a festive holiday party more than an overly aggressive or overly friendly pet threatening an adult, knocking down a child, or slobbering on your friends. But you can still have a successful party and keep everyone happy and safe by preparing your dog or cat for the holiday season. For expert advice we turned to Kat Middleton, a British dog behaviorist and trainer; Marcie Fallek, a veterinarian with offices in New York and Connecticut, and Carole Wilbourn, a renowned New York feline behaviorist known as The Cat Therapist. The trio also offered some safety suggestions if you plan to visit a home where there are pets.
According to the experts, there are basically two personality types that can be particularly problematic at parties:
An aggressive or fearful pet: Any animal—a dog, cat, even a bird—can get stressed with the hustle and bustle of a holiday party unless they have been raised in an environment where they are accustomed to lots of visitors and loud music. As a result, they can swat or snap at strangers. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are aggressive pets, says Fallek. “Most aggression in animals stems from fear.” Fallek says she’s met only a few “truly aggressive dogs” in her 30 years as a vet. “Animals can get overwhelmed and stressed in a party situation,” she says, “but they don’t have words to say what they are feeling. They only have their teeth and nails to protect themselves.”
One solution is to make sure there’s a quiet, separate room in which your pet can stay for the duration the party. “They would be happier away from it all, with a bone or a hollow toy stuffed with food (Kong or similar),” says Middleton. Also consider keeping the dog behind a sturdy dog gate “with a cushion, toys and treats.”
As for cats, most will usually run and hide as soon as strangers appear. “The cat will make the decision,” says Wilbourn. “But sometimes you have to make the decision for the cat.” Wilbourn suggests that you put a nervous feline in a cozy, familiar room where your pet can take a nap, play with catnip or toys. Move all the necessary items your pet will need throughout the evening, such as the water bowl or litter box.
An extremely friendly pet: This type of pet won’t be aggressive, but can be annoying to guests. “My 70-pound border collie mix dog, Destiny, will crawl into anyone’s lap,” says Fallek. “But lots of people don’t like a 70 pound dog up on their chest, licking their face.” Certain breeds are much more affectionate than others. “Golden retrievers have to be the center of attention, they want to be seen and loved,” she says. “Labradors, too, are very social, especially when there is food around.”
While good basic obedience is important for dogs in all situations, owners should practice basic distracting commands such as “sit”, “stay”, “down” or “go to your bed,” before having guests to one’s home, advises Fallek. It’s also a good idea to feed and exercise your dogs before a party so they are less likely to bark and protest against being left out. “A tired animal, one that has been played with and loved by its human, is less likely to behave badly,” she says.
Although the overly affectionate pet is typically a dog, cats can also be love-bugs. “You may have a cat that adores everybody, a real party cat,” says Wilbourn.”The cat will run around at a party and try to meet everyone. That can present a problem if a guest is allergic.” If that’s the case, she says, move the cat to the room the cat likes best. If you are in a tiny apartment, use the bathroom or set up a comfortable area in a closet.”
Advice for Party Guests
If you are planning to attend a party and want to bring your pet, check with the hostess first to make sure it’s okay. Not all will be as gracious as the hostesses who welcomed Fred, the Russian Blue cat owned by Long Island resident Stephanie Keys. “I’d bring Fred to parties and everyone used to say, ‘oh Fred is here,’” Keys recalls. She would ask the hostess where Fred could sit and he’d usually snuggle next to the guests on the couch.
But Fred wasn’t exactly the perfect party guest. “When a guest had finished a martini and put the glass down on the table, Fred would walk over, put his paw in the drink, scoop out the olives, and eat them,” she says. “Another time Fred put his paw in my friend’s salmon and caviar dip, scooped some out, and ate it. But my hostess was gracious. She said ‘Fred is family’ and gave him his own portion.” If, however, you don’t want your pet to indulge every food within smelling distance, give pets some of their favorite pet treats during the party.
When you visit a pet-owners home, always ask first if the animal is friendly before petting a dog or cat. “Some animals feel threatened by eye contact, physical contact, people approaching too close or leaning over them,” says Middleton. “This can result in stress for the animal, which may be expressed as defensive aggression, especially if cornered where they feel they have no escape.”
Allow a dog or cat to approach you rather than you reaching out to pet the animal. Then extend your hand out flat, palm down, so the animal can smell you. But pay attention to the pet’s body language so you can tell if the animal is feeling threatened. Dogs, for instance, give “calming signals,” that show they are emotionally uncomfortable, says Middleton. The most common of which are looking, turning or moving away, yawning, licking their lips and blinking. Cats, on the other hand, will flatten their ears, ripple their back, wag their tail vigorously or shoot it straight up.
By being alert and respectful of the animals, you’ll help ensure that your festive holiday party is safe and joyful for both two-legged and four-legged party-goers.
Rona Cherry has written about health and wellness for The New York Times magazine, The Ladies’ Home Journal, Vegetarian Times, and many other publications. She was the editor-in-chief of several national magazines, including Fitness and Longevity. She is currently an editorial and PR consultant with regional publications and nonprofits.