How to calm an anxious pet during holiday gatherings

Cat with tiny present

November and December are certainly joyful times of the year. For most, these two months signal twinkly lights, cold nights and cozy blankets, picturesque snowfalls, and of course, holiday parties and lots of family time.

All that joy can also be stressful — especially for your anxious pet. While you might be having a ball, your four-legged friends may experience anxiety and fear due to things like loud voices, strangers, lots of hustle and bustle, and new environments. And if you’re out and about — attending parties, buying presents, preparing for guests — separation can cause pet stress, too! All of this can be even more upsetting for aging animals.

Caring for your pet is always important, but it’s especially important to pay close attention to their needs during the busy holiday season. It’s up to you to help manage your pet’s anxiety. So, how do you recognize anxiety in your pet?

A German Shepherd dog in reindeer antlers

Anxiety symptoms and signs in pets

The most common anxiety symptoms in animals are behavioral. For example, when faced with a strange situation or person, your dog lets you know they’re uncomfortable or scared by barking or backing away from the stranger.

Symptoms include:

  • Backing away from a stranger
  • Aggression
  • Destructive behavior
  • Restlessness
  • Barking or meowing
  • Eliminating in the house

Your pet’s body language is a huge clue as to how they’re feeling. By learning the difference between their behavior when they’re comfortable and when they’re scared, you’ll be able to figure out triggers for their anxiety and when they might need some space or help calming down. Learn more about what your pet's body language is telling you with our dog body language guide and the signs of aggression in cats.

Remedies to help reduce holiday anxiety in pets

First and foremost, talk with your veterinarian. They’ll be able to better assess your pet’s symptoms, the cause of their anxiety, and determine if medication is necessary.

While there are chews or oils you can buy that claim to help with anxiety, there’s no real evidence to support how well they work, or if they’re effective.

These products — including chews, scents, CBD oil, collars, and Thundershirts — have an individual effect on animals, which can be minimal at best. At Animal Humane Society, we use lavender oil and music to calm the animals staying in our shelters, but there’s no concrete evidence they truly help.

“These things generally exist to make the humans feel better,” says Liv Hagen, Manager of Shelter Behavior Services.

Cute kitty by a tree

Training tips to overcome fear

While products aren’t a sure-fire remedy, there are ways to ease your pet’s anxiety. Socialization and training can prevent anxiety or help your pets face their fears with confidence.

Your four-legged friend may feel more comfortable in new situations the more they experience them. This kind of training is called desensitization and counter conditioning. Through desensitization and counter conditioning, you slowly expose your pet to the source of their anxiety in small amounts and reward them with high value treats. Over time, they’ll cope with the situation more easily or view it differently — no longer fearing the situation, but associating it with good things like treats.

Obedience training in general strengthens the bond between you and your pet. Regular exercise, mental stimulation, and keeping your pet healthy can also reduce anxiety. Try these tips for curbing your pet's winter boredom. Overall, when their physical and mental needs are met, they’re happier — just like humans.

Prepare in advance for holiday visitors

Just like desensitizing your pet to their anxiety triggers can help reduce their symptoms over time, preparing in advance for holiday activities and visitors will help ensure your pet is set up for success. Things like creating a safe, quiet space for your pet, building in time for exercise before festivities begin, and taking steps to prevent door dashing will make celebrations with your anxious pet more enjoyable. 

Be your pet’s best advocate

These are just a few suggestions of things to try. As always, talk with your veterinarian to be sure you’re doing the right thing for your individual pet.

As you try different remedies or work on training, remember to always be your pet’s best advocate. Don’t put them through stressful situations if they can be avoided. The holidays will be happier for them, and you’ll feel better for it, too!

Sign up for AHS email

If you found this article helpful and want more information about pet parenting, sign up for email from AHS. You'll receive behavior tips, stories about adorable, adoptable animals, and more!