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    Miriam YardenChristmas With Your Companions

    by Contributing Editor C. Miriam Yarden, B.Sc., MS

    (Nov. 13, 2008) -- We are looking forward for another holiday season and many of us are already planning and preparing for parties, dinners, gatherings and happy times. There will be much joyous noise, crowded rooms and happy chaos which we welcome and enjoy. This time is also a change from our usual, comfortable routine and the sensible eating and drinking we engage in all through the year. Social- and family gatherings go hand-in-hand with huge meals, with noise and bustling about -- but let us not forget very important members of out families -- our companion animals.

    Let us start with the preparations. Gift wrapping is an exciting activity but it is one in which animals should not be involved. Dyes from colorful wrappings can be toxic, flocking and glitter may be chewed and swallowed. In fact, some of the glitter is sharp enough to get under the skin, between the toes or damage eyes. Ribbons are sharp and can damage delicate tissues in the mouths, lodge in throats and block intestines. Cats should be carefully supervised since they love ribbons and strings.

    Tree ornaments come in many forms and materials, mostly brittle and sharp such as glass, ceramics, plastic etc. They are attractive to pets as they are to children and the damage they can cause is serious.

    Christmas trees should be decorated with the family dog or cat in mind. In the case of small dogs (and small children) a simple barrier around the base of the tree (such as placing it in a playpen or surrounding it with a low, decorative fence, etc.) can be most effective and if decorated with harmless materials, most unusual and attractive. Placing the gifts inside the fence until opening time also prevents nosy muzzles from checking out the goodies. Keep pets away from the water the tree has been placed in -- that water is highly toxic!

    Tree lights should never be left plugged in unless the pet is under supervision and certainly not when he is left .home alone. Unfortunately, too many dogs and cats have been severely injured and even killed when biting into a live wire, which to them is a novel addition to the room during the holidays. Although he may knock the tree over, it is far better than being electrocuted and risk brain damage or death, or set the house on fire.

    Hanukkah candles should not be left unattended with animals around. Many cats are fascinated by the lovely little flames and will stare at them as long as they burn. They also tend to bat at the flames -- specially young cats who have never seen flames before -- another potential fire in the making.

    Parties are an integral part of the holidays and they are wonderful fun. However, it is not absolutely necessary to include the family pet in the milling, noisy, excited crowd. Animals thrive on routine and this is the time of the year when that comfortable, familiar and safe routine is seriously interrupted. The excitement and noise can be unsettling, frightening and emotionally stressful. It is best to keep to his year-long routine as best as possible. His meals should be given at the usual time, his regular walks should be adhered to and his toilet needs should not be delayed.

    Most dogs and cats are fearful of crowds of people in limited spaces. The constant movement, the many legs they have to keep away from, the repeated ringing of the doorbell are unsettling and their behavior may become un-social. Some guests may be afraid of dogs or allergic to cats -- and show it -- others may be overly affectionate and make too much fuss over an excited dog or cat. Cats can land in panic on top of a festive table and wreak havoc. Dogs can damage clothing or stockings filled with human legs. Some dogs are fearful of children -- none of these are conducive to happy gatherings.

    Taking you dog to a party in other people's homes presents another set of possible disasters. In an unfamiliar place with new and exciting scents, he may decide to mark the area to announce his presence. For him this is perfectly natural but lives there a hostess who will smile benignly and honestly say that it doesn't matter? He may dart out through a door carelessly left open. He may take a dislike to some people. And dogs at a party to which they have not been invited and are brought without permission of the hosts, are not very popular. Neither are their owners -- it is truly best to leave them at home in their safe and familiar environment.

    Holiday food should not be shared with dogs and cats. Too many of our foods are, at best unhealthful for them and at worst, positively harmful, since their digestive systems also thrive on routine, and monotonous diet. Imagine the upset stomachs that appear after such parties and the many dogs who are treated by veterinarians for pancreatitis caused by the excess fat. Give them turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, yams, cakes and pies, candy and ice cream -- they'll love it. But remember that they have been eating a balanced, familiar and suitable diet all year long and the sudden, rich fare will be rejected by their systems.

    There are some people who still think that there is nothing funnier than giving alcohol to pets or blowing smoke into animals' faces and watch them gag and choke. THERE IS NOTHING FUNNY ABOUT IT! If etiquette prevents you from showing such people the door, then protect your companions from them.

    In fact, protect your pets from crowded and noisy parties by removing them from the excitement. Place them in a quiet, calm and peaceful part of the house like the bedroom, give them their beds, food, water and toys. Leave them a light, television on low volume and visit them from time to time to make sure they are calm and do not feel rejected. If your guests wish to visit, they should do so in small numbers, quietly, calmly, with interest and gentle affection.

    Animals as Christmas presents is a BAD IDEA in spite of the emotional appeals in the papers and on television we are bombarded with at this time of the year. This is NOT the time to bring home a confused, frightened or very young animal for many reasons.

    The temptation to show off a tiny baby animal is almost irresistible, when in fact, what he needs is quiet, rest and reassurance. Excitement and noise, tension and lack of rest, being pulled and carried around by small children can easily exhaust, terrify and bewilder him and he may resist with small growls, and even a snap or a nip. Thus, what appears to be aggressive behavior is merely self-defense but it can be a prelude to disaster -- mostly for the animal. New adult adoptees also need quiet, attention and affection to make their adjustment to the new environment and people easier, and to familiarize themselves with their new families, new surroundings and new ways of life.

    Too many times the wrong kind of pet is given as a gift which creates a pre-condition for future rejection. The wife wanted a small, shorthaired lap-sitter, suitable for apartment living, but the husband gave her a lovely Samoyed puppy who did not stay small and left lots of white fur on the dark rugs and furniture -- she reflected on this with annoyance every time the dog needed long sessions of brushing or had to be taken for long walks. Or the active youngster who was looking forward to a Golden Retriever and was given instead, a Miniature Poodle.

    Giving a gift-certificate accompanied by feeding dishes, collar and leash, toys, litterbox (for a cat) and sleeping basket -- is a much better idea. After the holidays, allow the recipient to select the kind of puppy/dog or kitten/cat of his or her own choice. After all, isn't the idea of a gift such that the recipient should truly enjoy it?

    If the "giftee" was looking forward to a small Maltese, Yorkshire Terrier or Italian Greyhound, it is highly doubtful that he will be pleased with a Great Dane or a St. Bernard. A child who has been dreaming of a friendly and loving Labrador Retriever may not develop a rapport with a Dachshund or a Miniature Pincher. The above method of giving a living gift -- after the holidays and allowing the recipient to make the choice -- is far more conducive for a happy, lifetime commitment to keep the pet and not rejecting him later.

    Have a wonderful time during the holidays but allow your pets to enjoy themselves too, calmly, happily and above all -- SAFELY.

    So to you and all your family members, both bi- and quadruped: Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

    Ms. Yarden and welcome your comments in response to this perspective piece. Please include your name, your general part of town, and a telpehone number [not for publication] so we can reach you.

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