Christmas comes every year, on the dot.
The same tree in the same spot. The colourful presents waiting to be unwrapped. The same decorations from the loft. Even the same date every year (25th of December, just in case you’d forgotten).
But when we start having mulled wine and getting in the 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 why we have the Christmas period, dogs do understand patterns. They can link settings and behaviours. Once they know something has happened, they can think it is likely it will happen again.
So while they don’t know it is Jesus’ Birthday, they may know something is happening because of patterns and associations. There may even be presents for them under the tree. But mostly, they simply see us getting excited, so get excited too.
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 [Pets] Know It’s Christmas Time At All?
While cats and dogs are much smarter than most people realise, 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.
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 know any 2-year-olds, you’ll know that the concept of Christmas is a bit tricky for most of 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!
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 or any other emotion.
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.
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. 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. 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 setup. Never disrupt your pet too much to suit your home design.
That being said, despite the confusion, most pets absolutely love Christmas even if they don’t quite get it. There’s plenty of enjoyment and love which comes their way!
Why Pets Love Christmas… Even If They Don’t Understand It
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 are too good to resist.
While we have the restraint to be able to wait till the 25th before opening our goodies, many pets won’t hold back. You’ll have to be on a constant present watch for the majority of the month.
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 off the scale.
Don’t be surprised if your pets spend the big day waiting at your feet for scraps, but be sure not to feed them anything they can’t have. Feed them their own treats instead, or make them their own safe dinner.
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.
In the UK, this is a rarity these days unless you’re lucky enough to be up in the Scottish Highlands. 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. You can even make some handmade guinea pig toys with leftover wrapping paper tubing.
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 if you get a few days off over the holidays! There may be family members there, too.
How To Keep Your Pets Happy At Christmas
All these fun activities and things to enjoy can make Christmas a time to savour for most pups and pussycats. But 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. They’re part of the family too, so their feelings should always come under consideration. They can be as merry as everyone else!
Give pets plenty of attention
Family members to see. Jobs to do. Traditions to keep up with.
It’s 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. Spoiling them with new toys and treats will keep them occupied while you’re busy!
Limit your light displays
While many pets absolutely love the twinkly lights on your tree, some dogs may find particularly flashy light shows overwhelming or even upsetting. So try to keep things simple to reduce stress.
Don’t drink too much
This one is sometimes easier said than done. 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.
Hide your presents
While it looks beautiful and organised having all your presents under the tree, a pet may fancy ripping them up. If they’re new and strange and dogs don’t like change, this is particularly relevant. You’ll also see this if the gift is for them, as they’ll be able to smell if there are treats in there.
Give them some space
If you’re planning on having plenty of people around on Christmas day, this can be 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!