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Posted on Thu, Dec 8, 2011 : 5:55 a.m.

With some preparation, holiday entertaining and travel can be less stressful for pets

By Lyssa Alexander, DVM

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Photo by Flickr user Plutor

Taking care of pets properly is often more work than people anticipate when they take on the responsibility. This is never more obvious then around the holidays when the mood is chaotic, travel is high and pet sitters are hard to find. The holidays are especially hard for people who have special needs pets (chronic medications, anxiety problems, etc.). Planning ahead for the any trips you are taking can help take some of the stress out of the holidays, whether you have cats, dogs or other animals.

One of the most common holiday pitfalls is the neglected cat. Cats are usually one of the most easy going types of pets. Most cats will do fine with your absence emotionally. However, too many people are tempted to just lay out a huge pile of food when leaving for four days. This is inappropriate for two reasons.

First, if your cats are chow hounds, they will be likely to eat a gluttonous amount of food, which could potentially make them very ill.

The second comes from running out of food. If they eat the food too fast (or a crafty dog eats it), then they could end up going several days without food. A cat that goes without food for more than two to three days is at risk for developing a life-threatening condition called hepatic lipidosis.

This also becomes a problem when using automatic cat feeders because of their propensity to jam or stop working if the power goes out. If you are using an automatic feeder (which is better than a giant food pile), make sure that someone is coming by every one or two days to check that it is working and give the cats a scratch on the head.

It would also be nice to make sure that the litter box gets cleaned out so that they don't develop a litter box aversion. It is amazing how fast people's opinions of their cats changes when they start pooping in inappropriate places.

Most people will make some plan for their dogs when they go out of town. If they are going to be left alone unattended, make sure that the house has been thoroughly doggy-proofed (nothing they could destroy or ingest in easy range, no medications on the counter, no plants in easy reach, etc.). Most dogs would thoroughly appreciate a walk and a little attention from a trusted sitter or friend each day as well.

There are also many doggy day care and boarding options. It is a good idea to have them stay at one of these facilities for a daycare experience or short weekend trip before leaving them for longer times. This way, they will be used to the facility and you will know how they handle it.

Small mammals, birds and reptiles can sometimes be forgotten in the holiday mix, but they shouldn't be. Small mammals need a consistent routine. Making sure that you have someone who can keep their cages cleaned and fill their food and water regularly will help to prevent problems.

Rabbits are particularly sensitive to disruptions and can develop life-threatening GI stasis from stress or missing meals. A rabbit that isn't eating for a day is an emergency. Take the time to make sure you have a plan for these critters and that the person who is helping you has been shown all the steps in your normal care routine. When it comes to birds and reptiles, automatic light timers are a huge help. Make sure that all lights are well secured and plugged into properly grounded outlets that aren't overloaded.

The holidays can be stressful on pets. Having a plan in place will help you avoid some of the pitfalls of travel. Making sure you keep your pets' routine as normal as possible can greatly help to reduce their stress (regular walks and mealtimes, having people they know take care of them).

There are also safe and effective anti-anxiety products that can help to take the edge off. Even if you are hosting this year, having all the new people in the house can be overwhelming for some animals. Calming pheromone products exist for both cats and dogs (Feliway, D.A.P). Products like the ThunderShirt for dogs are also a great idea (works like swaddling a baby and provides warmth at the same time).

The important thing is that you carefully assess your pets needs and make sure you have a plan that meets their needs and reduces their stress and yours.

With a little planning, we can all have a happy holiday!

Dr. Lyssa Alexander treats small and exotic animals and pocket pets at All Creatures Animal Clinic.