How to Ask Guests to Respect Your Pet's Boundaries This Holiday Season

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As the saying goes "there's no place like home for the holiday," but what if your home is being invaded by people who are loud and scary?

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Unfortunately for many of our pets, this can be the experience of how they understand the winter holidays. The festivities, sounds, lights, outfits, music, and traditions of the holiday season can be a lot for our pets, especially if these things come with guests. Although these visitors might be our closest friends and family, this doesn't mean our pets are going to automatically (or sometimes ever) feel comfortable around them.

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This can be challenging for visitors to remember, and it's important to keep our pets' boundaries, safety, and comfort at the forefront of our holiday plans. Pets aren't stuffed animals and they don't have to entertain our visitors during holiday gatherings.

Cats and visitors

A cat's boundaries can sometimes be crossed by visitors in the home because of their relatively small size. Be sure to provide your cat with quiet places to retreat to when company comes over. Cat trees and other raised perches are especially comforting for many cats, and allow them to watch the festivities from a safe distance without being directly involved. Don't allow visitors to go searching for your cat or let them try to pull your cat out from under furniture if they have gone into hiding.

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Dogs and guests

There is an expectation that all dogs love people and are overjoyed to have visitors around the house. In reality, many dogs are uncomfortable about strangers entering the home because of breed characteristics, individual temperaments, or anxieties. This can lead to dogs getting overexcited out of fear or discomfort, and potentially becoming protective of you.

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Limit your dog's interactions with visitors until you know how your dog feels about their presence, and help to set your dog up for success by managing any interactions with visitors. An easy way to do this is to keep your dog leashed to you during holiday gatherings.

Don’t push your pets to engage

You love your pets and you want everyone in your life to recognize how great they are, but this can lead to pet owners inadvertently pushing their pets to be more social or more engaged with visitors. Oftentimes this can backfire and can lead dogs or cats to lash out by swatting, hissing, lunging, barking, or even biting to create space away from people. If your cat swats at your uncle or your dog barks and lunges at your mother, don't punish your pet for their behavior. Instead, treat that situation as your pet communicating their needs and discomfort, and take it as an important lesson that your pet needs more space from your holiday visitors.

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Don’t let guests decide they are “experts”

One of the big challenges with holiday visitors has to do with people thinking that because they love animals, they must know your pet's needs or wants better than you do. This can lead to uncomfortable or even dangerous situations where people will overstep your pet's comfort by trying to force your pet to play, cuddle, or be touched. It's important to remind visitors that pets are individuals, and even if they really love dogs or cats that doesn't mean your pet will like them, or that they will be able to engage with your pet while in your home. You are the expert on what your pets are comfortable with, and they are trusting you to set and maintain boundaries for them.

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Do set boundaries

Setting boundaries for your pets are part of our responsibilities for keeping our pets safe and comfortable during the holiday season. They should take priority over appeasing your friends or family members who might want to "say hello." A great way to protect your pets' boundaries and set your visitors up to be successful with your pet, is to explain in advance over the phone, by text, or by email what your pets' need and how you do and don't want them to interact. For example, you might want them to completely ignore your pets unless your pet solicits attention from them. Alternately, you might know that your dog does well when they greet new people who give them treats. You can plan to leave a container of treats on your front porch and ask your visitors to take treats from the container to give to your dog when they enter the home. It can be very helpful to clearly explain to your guests in advance what they can and can't do for your pet's comfort and safety. When they arrive, remind them again of your pet's boundaries.

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Do manage spaces

One of the best things that you can do to help enforce your nervous pet's boundaries during holiday visits is to create a private oasis behind closed doors, or baby gates for your pet to access or retreat to while visitors are in your home. For some pets who might be more unpredictable around people, it might be safest for your pet if you keep them behind a door to prevent people from bothering them while in your home and to keep everyone safe. Alternately, if your cat or dog is likely to be nervous or uncomfortable with visitors, it's a great idea to provide your pet with a room in your home, where they can retreat to for a break from visitors.

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Whether you keep your pet in the safe room or just provide them with free access to access that room as they wish, the goal is to make your pet's private safe space as attractive and relaxing as possible. Try having low music playing to block out some of the holiday festivities, and prep the space with your pet's favorite toys, long-lasting chew toys for dogs, or some puzzle toys for cats to keep them occupied, distracted, and enriched while you're entertaining.

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Don’t ignore body language

Your dog or cat's body language can tell you a lot about how they are feeling, and how comfortable they are or aren't with visitors in your home. If you're looking for more support about what your pet might be trying to communicate with you, Zazie Todd of Companion Animal Psychology is an author, psychologist, and certified dog trainer who provides excellent insight into how cats and dogs experience and respond to stressful situations and how to keep them comfortable. Running out of topics of conversation at your holiday gathering? Reminding visitors about your pets' boundaries around engaging with people is always a good opportunity to help your friends and family gain a better understanding of cat and dog body language. For example, a dog wagging their tail isn't always happy, and a cat flattened and stiff is likely very uncomfortable. Body language can tell you a lot about how a pet is feeling and if they are comfortable with how someone is engaging with them. Lili Chin's "Doggy Language" book is an easily accessible overview of canine body language and can be an educational conversation starter to have out on the coffee table when visitors come over around the holidays.

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Do supervise

When you have holiday visitors in your home, it can be beneficial to have someone whose priority is keeping track of your pets and ensuring that their boundaries are being respected. This can be as simple as making sure that people don't accidentally leave a door open when coming in and out from their car or, preventing children from visiting and bothering pets while they are sleeping or engaging with their toys. For dogs who get overly excited with visitors in the home, it can be helpful to have your dog leashed to you while visitors are arriving to have them also focus on you. Provide treats, praise, and encourage them to have calm interactions as holiday guests arrive. You can even keep your dog leash tethered to you the whole time visitors are in the house, so they don't have a chance to engage in behavior you don't want.

Do follow your pet’s lead

If you adopted a pet during the pandemic and haven't had many (or any) visitors in your home, you might not know what your pet's comfort will be with guests. In this case, it's always a good idea to be cautious. Plan for your pets to be nervous, shy, and uncomfortable, and then follow your pets' lead. Even if your pets were relatively comfortable and familiar with visitors entering your home prior to the pandemic, if you have been on a strict social distancing lockdown since early 2020, your pets might now be wary or less confident around visitors in the home. Watch your pet closely to see how they are handling holiday visitors and adjust your care and management plans accordingly based on how they are doing with the guests. Just because your pet is comfortable with some friends and family members, doesn't mean they will automatically be as welcoming to different visitors.

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