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During the holidays we open our homes to family and friends. But this can be stressful — and potentially dangerous — for your pets. Your dog or cat may react to guests with bad behavior (jumping, mouthing), stress (peeing outside the litterbox) or, most frightening of all, dashing out an open door as people are coming in. Whether you’re planning a festive neighborhood open house or hosting overnight guests for New Year’s Eve, a carefully thought out retreat area is a successful management tool for many pets. Teach your pet to like his safe space ahead of time so it’s not a mad rush to contain him just before company arrives. Without training, it’s more likely that your dog or cat will struggle and panic when contained. Prior training gives your pet a positive association with his area and builds confidence with separation. This safe retreat area can also be useful beyond the holidays; my pets go to their safe areas during thunderstorms and when I have workmen in the home, for example.
Choose a comforting space. Individual dogs and cats have distinct preferences about the type of space they find most relaxing. While most animals prefer rooms with natural light and windows, some — especially those who are also afraid of thunder — may prefer quieter spaces with less access to outdoor light, such as basements, closets or bathrooms. No matter what room your pet prefers, be sure to thoroughly pet proof the retreat area. This means removing anything your animal could get tangled up in or harmed by if chewed on or eaten. And keep in mind that some pets prefer the closed-in space of their crate — the contained environment is similar to a den.
Be clear about the rules of entry. Even a dog or cat who is friendly with people may react defensively if cornered or trapped in a room or crate; for this reason, the retreat space should be kept off-limits to visitors. An area with a visual separation, like a closed door, works best. Your pet’s area should not be approached or entered by anyone except people your pet is comfortable with. Some dogs and cats are more content in spaces with open viewing, such as in a room behind a baby gate or inside an exercise pen. This type of retreat area allows animals who are friendly with people to watch guests while still being contained. Keep in mind, though, that you run the risk that guests will try to interact with and pet your dog or cat; if he’s not comfortable with this, consider a closed-off space instead. In addition, some pets are athletic gymnasts and can jump or climb out of these spaces, which defeats the purpose.
Provide plenty of comfort items. Any object that gives your pet comfort and enjoyment can be placed in his room as long as it won’t be chewed up or ingested. His favorite toys, his bed, pieces of clothing that smell like you, and fuzzy blankets are common comfort items. Make sure your pet has water in his retreat space as well. Some cats are more at ease when they have vertical areas to climb, like cat trees or securely anchored shelving, while others enjoy places to burrow and hide, like cat tunnels and covered beds. Your cat’s scratching post and regular litterbox should also be in his retreat area.
Don’t forget the entertainment. Animals get bored without activities to occupy their time. Provide your pet with stuffed food puzzles and long lasting chews to keep him occupied and to boost his positive association with the space.
Keep your expectations reasonable. Many pets can't be left alone for long periods without becoming stressed. If your guests will be staying for more than a couple of hours, give your pet breaks by taking your dog for a walk or engaging in a play session with your cat. In some cases, temporary day boarding or overnight boarding is the best solution when the period of separation will be too long, or if your pet gets stressed when left alone.
If your pet is fearful, aggressive or acts conflicted around people, seek professional help, starting with your veterinarian. Similarly, there are some dogs and cats who are distressed by separation. If this is the case, professional guidance is also warranted to properly address the issue.
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