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Holiday Season Is Fun But Stressful for People and Pets

In the not-so-distant past, I loved Thanksgiving and Christmas. Things certainly have changed. I work as an emergency veterinarian, which means that my hours boil...

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Dec 26th 2011


In the not-so-distant past, I loved Thanksgiving and Christmas. Things certainly have changed.

I work as an emergency veterinarian, which means that my hours boil down to nights, weekends and holidays. The period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day is especially rough.

It is a difficult time, not just because I don’t get to celebrate in a conventional fashion. It is a difficult time not only because I must work extra while everyone else has extra time off.

The holidays are a difficult time for me primarily for a different reason: The holidays are a difficult time for pets.

The stress of the holidays is well known to humans who must scramble to buy presents (while not going bankrupt in the process) and who often have to endure the company of unpleasant distant relatives. But humans are not the only ones to feel the strain of the holiday season. Pets feel it, too.

Thanksgiving weekend is consistently the busiest weekend of the year in my practice. Virtually everyone in the country travels or has guests, both of which can be stressful for pets. There are lots of new and potentially dangerous foods at Thanksgiving feasts, and strangers may not be savvy about keeping these items out of pets’ reach. Visiting children may allow puppies to wiggle out of their grasp (which is a common cause of broken legs).

Stress combined with rich, novel foods such as turkey skin often means stomach upset. I treated many cases of pancreatitis (which is linked to gastrointestinal upset, rich foods, and stress) during Thanksgiving weekend. I also saw an extraordinary amount of hemorrhagic gastroenteritis (HGE), which is characterized by extremely bloody diarrhea and occurs when gastrointestinal upset spirals out of control. Thanksgiving weekend was a rough time for many of my patients.

Once Thanksgiving is over, the hazards of Christmas immediately loom large. Chocolate, holly, and mistletoe are toxic to pets (although thankfully they rarely cause fatal reactions). Ornaments consumed by dogs or tinsel or ribbons swallowed by cats can cause life-threatening gastrointestinal obstructions. Cats climb Christmas trees that then fall over and injure the cat in question. Tempers flare and anxieties run high in families during the buildup to Christmas; pets feel this and suffer stress as a consequence. Short days and cold weather weaken pets’ immune systems. And then, on Christmas Day, pets must cope with more traveling, guests, and novel food.

After Christmas, pets get less than a week to recover before the parties and fireworks of New Year’s Eve. Thankfully, the festivities all come to an end on my favorite day of the year: January 2.

Of course, the holidays aren’t universally bad for pets. Many animals receive gifts and special meals that don’t always cause upset stomachs. They may see loved ones (such as college-aged children) whom they have missed for months. Their owners have extra time off, which means extra time to spend with pets. Most pets probably enjoy the season.

But for pets, like their owners, the holidays are a time when trouble also seems to occur more often. My experiences in the last month have backed up this observation. Thankfully, it is only about a week until January 2.