Do Pets Understand Christmas?

Christmas… It’s not exactly a very hard concept to wrap your head around.

The same sparkly tree in the exact same spot, the same colourful boxes waiting to be unwrapped, the same old decorations from the loft and even the same date every year (25th of December, just in case you’d forgotten).

But when we start anticipating mulled wine and festive cheer as early as November, do our pets sense the impending joy of Christmas on the way too? Do they even understand the concept?

While common sense will always tell us that pets can’t possibly work out what’s going on during the Christmas period, it’s hard to ignore moments of festive joy at the sight of a present or the lights on the tree, making it easy to wonder if they know more than they’re letting on.

Due to their inability to speak human, the likes of Santa Claus, mistletoe, carols and all your favourite traditions are always going to get lost in translation somewhat… but surely they can remember certain parts of the big day? (unless of course they’re a goldfish)

To work out what’s really going on inside their little heads, we delved into the world of cognitive science and animal behaviour to get some definitive results.

Do They Know It’s Christmas Time At Home?

While cats and dogs are much smarter than most people realise, they’re not secretly hiding Mensa IQs and it’s unlikely you’ve been feeding a little hairy Einstein all this time.

Although they have some seriously clever sensory skills in their locker which can help them hunt down food and prey, when it comes to complex thinking and problem solving, they’re way behind us humans.

what pets think at christmas

In a TED talk analysing the emotional responses of a dog’s brain, Neuroscientist Gregory Berns stated that pups have a similar mental age to a toddler in terms of comprehension ability. These findings were based on an MRI analysis of a dog’s brain function and if you currently know any 2-year-olds, you’ll be aware that the concept of Christmas is a bit of a tricky one for them too.

So as unfortunate as it may be, pets simply don’t have the cognitive ability to understand the significance behind special dates or remember them when they come around.

This means any perceived excitement or recognition they display around the Christmas period is therefore not their own joy and happiness… but a reflection of yours!

This is because our animals display something called emotional contagion as part of their animal behaviour, where they often mirror their owner’s current emotional state. This is especially true of dogs more than any other pet, who can always seem to sense when their owner is sad, angry etc.

So if you’re bouncing off the walls and singing ‘Deck The Halls’ at the top of your voice, a dog will often follow your lead! They’re simply happy and excited because you are.

However, despite the fact they can’t understand Christmas, yuletide definitely creates behavioural changes in your pet thanks to the many changes around the house.

what cats think at christmas

New items in their environment like the tree and various decorations will see them doing a lot more investigating of the unusual switch-up, tasty smells will see them waiting patiently for drop-offs in the kitchen and they’ll react to the changes in your own behaviour too!

While dogs will usually enjoy the excitement, other pets like cats may find the loud noises and ever-changing guests a bit startling at first and so you may also see their behaviour become more nervous and confused at first.

This is especially true if any arrangements have affected their favourite sleeping spots, meaning they’ll have to spend the first week of December finding new ones and adjusting to the new set up.

That being said though, despite the confusion it can bring, most pets absolutely love Christmas even if they don’t quite get it, as there’s plenty of enjoyment and love which comes their way!

Why Pets Love Christmas… Even If They Don’t Understand It

Wrapping Paper
Forget about what’s inside them, pets love presents for one thing and one thing only – the wrapping paper. The sound and feel of tearing up the paper is too good to resist and while we have the restraint to be able to wait till the 25th before opening our goodies, many pets won’t hold back, meaning you’ll have to be on constant present watch for the majority of the month.

God, Christmas smells good, doesn’t it? And while the warm, inviting waft of Xmas dinner might seem irresistible to you, just imagine what that whiff is like for animals with a 40x greater sense of smell – that’s right, it’s literal crack. Don’t be surprised if your pets spend the big day waiting at your feet for scraps, but be sure not to indulge them on your own grub and feed them their own treats instead!

If your pets get fussed over with extra presents and cuddles on Christmas, it’s only natural they enjoy it more than any other day of the year!

Treats & Toys
A whole new bounty of toys to play with? As many treats as I want? Not many pets would say no to the extra indulgences sent their way at Christmas time.

Given the amount of nosh you’ll be shoving down your throat, there’s plenty of tasty crumbs knocking around on Christmas and pets are more than happy to save you a job and devote the day to being a vacuum cleaner. Just make sure they don’t get at anything which can do them harm!

In the UK, this is obviously a rarity these days, but dogs in particular love getting out and about in snowy weather!

A big one for cats, Christmas morning often leaves behind a whole maze of cardboard boxes to hide in and explore. Forget everything else, this is the true highlight of Noel for our feline friends.

Time With You!
If you don’t get to spend a lot of time at home due to work commitments, your pets will adore having you around more, especially if you get a few days off over the holidays!

Although all these fun activities and things to enjoy make Christmas a time to savour for most pups and pussycats around the world, it can also occasionally be a source of stress.

Make sure your pets’ needs and wants aren’t completely pushed to the side during December, as they’re part of the family too and so their feelings should always come under consideration so that they can be as merry as everyone else!

How To Keep Your Pets Happy At Christmas

Give Plenty Of Attention
With so many family members to see, jobs to do and traditions to keep up with, it’s far too easy for your pets to feel a little forgotten at Christmas. Try to involve them in as many things as possible during the big day or spoil them with new toys and treats that will keep them occupied while you’re busy!

keep pets stress free at christmas

Limit Your Light Displays
While many pets absolutely love the twinkly lights on your tree (especially cats!) some dogs may find particularly flashy light shows overwhelming or even upsetting, so try to keep things simple to reduce freak-outs!

Don’t Drink Too Much
This one is easier said than done and with all the bottles of booze that get gifted on Christmas, it’s very easy to overdo it. But if you’ve ever been drunk around your pet, you’ll know they can often get confused or even worried about you if you’re falling all over the place!

Hide Your Goodies
While it looks beautiful and organised having all your presents under the tree weeks before the big day, it can often all go to pot if you’ve got a pet who loves ripping up presents. You’ll especially see this if the gift is for them, as they’ll be able to smell if there are treats in there.

Give Them Their Own Space
If you’re planning on having plenty of people around on Christmas day, this can be alternatively brilliant or terrible news for your pet. If they adore being fussed over, they’ll love it, but if dozens of strangers they don’t know are suddenly filling up the house, they may find it all a bit overwhelming. Giving them their own space or room if there’s a party going on will ensure they don’t feel suffocated and it means guests can go and give them attention one by one rather than swarming them!