Dog in Tutu

Today, January 14, is National Dress Up Your Pet Day, so if you are looking for an excuse to put your dog in a dashing Scotch plaid raincoat and your cat in a fluffy sweater, today you have one! But we have to wonder, do our pets really like being treated like living dolls?

Why We Love to Do It

Outfitting pets started as a way to protect animals from the elements. But as we began treating pets more like family members, we also began to outfit them like family as well.

“Dressing up is a form of attention pets get from their owners and other people,” says Dr. Wailani Sung, a Seattle veterinary behaviorist. “And it’s attention-seeking behavior for people, too. ‘Look how cute my dog is.’ We take pride in that.”

Unexpected Consequences

But styling pets as nature never intended can stress some animals. Unless pet clothes are custom made, they rarely fit perfectly. Loose clothes can fall over eyes and ears, limiting sight and sound. And, according to Dr. Sung, tight clothes can restrict movement and literally rub an animal the wrong way, making him feel uncomfortable and restricted.

A stressed dog can have less patience for situations he might otherwise tolerate, and if he’s covered up, there are fewer body cues visible to signal dislike to humans and canines alike. You may think he looks adorable in that cashmere hoodie, but you may not realize that it can impact how he interacts with other dogs. Normally, when his archenemy, the poodle from down the street, approaches him, he may subtly signal with his ears how he feels, but the hoodie impacts his ability to deliver that information.

“When they are wearing clothing, some of their natural behavior may be suppressed. They cannot fully display normal signaling, and the situation may escalate to more overt signaling, such as barking and lunging.” Dr. Sung says.

What’s more, if your normally confident pet seems more deferential because of the clothes, other dogs may take advantage of that change in pack order. “The other dog may press on and become more assertive,” explains Dr. Sung. 

This doesn’t mean your pooch automatically becomes a walking fashion victim who is at the mercy of other dogs, but there are safety rules to consider and behavior cues to look for to make sure your pet is happy wearing the truly impressive wardrobe you’ve created for him.

Signs Your Dog or Cat May Be Comfortable (or Comfortably Tolerates) His Outfit

You can tell your pet is probably OK with being dolled up if:

  • he looks happily animated
  • your dog wags his tail or your cat acts relaxed
  • he moves around freely without acting as if he’s constricted or irritated

Signs Your Dog Doesn’t Want to Play Dress Up

He is not so pleased if he: 

  • hides or avoids you when you bring out clothing
  • lowers his head
  • crouches in a deferential, “Please, stop” position
  • licks his lips — a sign of anxiety
  • avoids direct eye contact
  • tries to rub or tug off clothes
  • goes limp when you try to put on the clothes
  • generally looks miserable, unanimated and unengaged

Signs Your Cat Hates Clothes

Your favorite feline will probably let you know pretty quickly if you are annoying her, but you’ll know you need to stop if she: 

  • runs away or scratches at you as you try to get the outfit on
  • meows loudly
  • goes limp when you try to get her into the outfit
  • bites you
  • chews or claws at the fabric

Ways to Make Dress Up Your Pet Day Fun for All

To ensure that everyone enjoys celebrating the holiday, take care to choose clothes that allow your pet to see and hear properly. Make sure he won’t get overheated in the outfit you select and choose sweaters and coats that don’t interfere with pets’ tails or their ability to do their business. Avoid anything with buttons, ties, ribbons, etc. that the dog or cat could swallow.

If your pet objects, stop immediately. In some cases, according to Dr. Sung, some pets can have a serious reaction to wearing clothes and end up clawing at themselves to get the clothes off or becoming aggressive toward their owners. Take it slowly and talk with your vet if you have any concerns at all.

If your dog seems only mildly concerned and curious, then you can probably proceed as long as you take it step by step. Over time, if you pet is amenable, you can try different outfits to discover what he hates and what he doesn’t seem to mind.

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