Saturday, October 27, 2012

Having a Happy Halloween with Your Pet

Halloween is just around the corner.  While to most humans, Halloween is a time of costumes, parties, candy, and fun, to our pets it can be a time of terror and danger.  The day is filled with noisy activity.  Strange looking creatures wander the streets, lawns sport scary decorations, and eggs and toilet paper get thrown around.  Even worse, pets often find that their humans have donned costumes that look, smell, and sound strange.  For many pets, costumes take away their sense of security by making the humans they know unrecognizable.

So what can you do to help?  Here are some tips:

Make sure your pets are secure
If you intend to stay home for Halloween and hand out candy, begin by making sure your pets are secure.  Confine them away from the door, which will be opening and closing all night, or tether them to something heavy and secure (using a leash or chew-proof tether) so that they can't bolt when the door opens.  Even if your pets are normally very good about staying indoors, the extra stress of all the noise and activity may lead them to seek escape.

Keep shy and aggressive pets away from the door
If your pets dislike visitors, protect your community by keeping your pets far away from the door for the evening.  Baby gates, closed doors, and ex-pens are all good tools.  If your pets find the doorbell alarming, consider disconnecting it for the night, or put out a basket of candy for trick-or-treaters, rather than handing out candy in person.

If you are going out, make your home a safe haven
If you intend to go out for Halloween, disconnect your doorbell.  Repeated doorbell rings can be torture for our furry friends.  Also, make sure all your doors and windows are closed and locked.  A frightened pet may figure out how to get out, or fall victim to a prank (innocent or otherwise), if the house is not sealed up.

Ask yourself if Fido is really up for Halloween adventures
For those of you who want to take a pet in costume with you to trick-or-treat, or to a Halloween party, first carefully evaluate your pet.  How social is your pet?  Is your pet comfortable in new situations?  Does your pet like whomever he or she meets regardless of how they are dressed?  Is your pet okay with people who walk, talk, or move in an unusual fashion?  Frightened pets often lash out at, or run away from, things they find frightening, and it’s best not to put your pet or others at risk.  If you are at all doubtful about your pet’s ability to handle the situations Halloween will pose, let your pet stay home.

Speaking of costumes…
If you want to have your pet wear a costume, make sure to choose that costume wisely.  The less restrictive the costume, the better.  Being able to move around freely is very important to your pet.  Also, keep in mind that costumes can make it harder for your pet to communicate with other animals, so pets in costume are best kept away from other animals.  Finally, consider dressing up your pet briefly only – just long enough for a fun photograph – and then letting your pet enjoy the rest of the holiday au naturel.

…and be sure to condition Fifi to accept her costume in advance
If you have a pet who is a social butterfly and loves new experiences, and you want to take him or her with you in costume for a Halloween adventure, spend time between now and Halloween conditioning your pet to love his or her costume so that being in costume for several hours is not a trial in and of itself.  Just a couple of minutes of training, a few times a day, will make a huge difference in how your pet feels about the costume.

Here's a quick sketch of how to condition your pet to a costume:

1.  Begin by putting the costume out where your pet can see and reach it.  Give your pet a treat, praise, toy, or some other reward each time your pet approaches the costume.  If you use a clicker, click whenever your pet looks at the costume or steps towards it, and build up to clicking your pet for touching the costume (search for “Clicker training: technique and philosophy (Part 1)" on this page for a brief introduction to clicker training).

2.  Next, begin approaching your pet while carrying the costume, rewarding your pet each time you take a step towards him or her.  If your pet remains calm as you approach, work up to putting the costume up against your pet's body (without actually putting it on).

3.  When your pet looks happy even when you touch him or her with the costume, you can begin dressing your pet in the costume, giving liberal rewards as you do so.  Go slowly as you put the costume on, letting your pet learn that each step of the dressing process earns rewards, and taking the costume off periodically so your pet gets a break, until you are able to put the costume on completely while your pet remains calm.

4.  Gradually build up the amount of time your pet is in costume, always making sure your pet is comfortable and removing the costume from the picture and taking a break any time your pet seems distressed.  If your pet seems anxious when it sees the costume even after several days of getting rewards around the costume, dressing your pet up is a bad idea.

Make sure Fido is OK with your costume, too
You can follow a similar procedure to condition your pet to the costume you will be wearing, or as you introduce your pet to any Halloween decorations you are putting up (while being careful not to encourage your pet to ingest the decorations, which can be deadly, as mentioned above).  The goal is to have your pet associate any strange shapes, sounds, or smells that relate to Halloween with fun, treats, and praise.

Respect Fifi’s needs as the day progresses

On the actual day of Halloween, regardless of where you are, if you notice your pet showing signs of anxiety, respect your pet's needs by quickly finding a way to make your pet more comfortable.  That may mean leaving the party you are at with your pet, or disconnecting the doorbell if you are at home.

If you don't already know what behaviors indicate anxiety in your pet, find out before Halloween.  Here’s a video of some behaviors dogs tend to do when they need a bit of a break.

ID isn’t just for humans...
Regardless of where your pet will be spending Halloween, make sure your pet has a collar and ID on.  Whether your pet manages to slip out the door while guests are coming in and out or breaks the leash when seeing a particularly scary costume, ID can be the difference between finding your pet again and losing your pet forever.  If your pet is microchipped, make sure the microchip is registered and that the information in the microchip registration database is up to date.  If your pet isn't microchipped, consider getting your pet microchipped.

...but alcohol is for humans only
Ingesting alcohol can be very risky for pets, among other things because they weigh so little that they can easily get alcohol poisoning.  For some pets, such as birds, any alcohol at all is fatal.  Keep Halloween cocktails for yourself and your friends – and out of your pet’s reach.

Keep your pets away from Halloween food
Many of our pets metabolize things differently than humans.  Chocolate, for example, is toxic to both dogs and cats (and our pets don't need excessive amounts of sugar in any event).  Whether you are handing out candy or collecting it, make sure to keep it out of the reach of your pets.

Keep holiday decorations out of reach, too
Your pet may view decorations as some kind of incredible edible.  Keep decorations high enough to be out of your pet's reach, or block off the area so pets can’t enter.  Decorations can cause intestinal blockages if eaten, and the dyes and materials used to make decorations may be toxic.

Secure your trash
Not only the actual candy and chocolate, but also the wrappers from candy and chocolate, can create problems (foil wrappers can literally cut internal organs).  Make sure your trash is unreachable, so your pet can't get into discarded decorations, food, food wrappers, or alcohol.

Whatever your plans, have a happy Halloween!

Los Angeles Dog Trainer's Dog in Count Dogula Costume
Franklin only wore this costume for about five minutes,
but he was clearly in the Halloween spirit.