dogandchildThe holiday season is upon us once again and spirits soar as we contemplate this annual break from drudgery, commitments and work. A departure from the mundanity of everyday rituals is suddenly on offer, as is the possibility of spending more quality time with friends and family.

In the south of this planet, we also enjoy annual leave at this time, and our weather is usually hot and sunny as a goodly number of us are either en route to holiday destinations, or already settling in having arrived. The rest of us simply spill into the outdoors more frequently, all the while imbued with a sense of relief and altruistic goodwill – at least that’s how it all starts.


Through other eyes

For the domestic animals with whom we share our homes, communities and daily environments, in particular those beasts both within and without to whom this blog is dedicated, it’s often much more of a mixed blessing.

For the domestic animals with whom we share our homes, communities and environments, in particular those beasts both within and without to whom this blog is dedicated, it’s often much more of a mixed blessing. For some domestic pets, they may enjoy having people around more often, and especially children coming to visit, and there is likely to be more attention and interaction on offer as more time is spent outdoors and in interactive play. People usually start off these holiday periods in a particularly relaxed and tolerant mood, and opportunities to be taken off-property for recreational walks and stimulation often increases markedly.. at least at first.

But as the crowds set off for holiday destinations far and wide, for yet others this is a time that will be spent in boarding kennels acclimatizing to novel routines and a distinct diminution of human contact, or alternatively they may find themselves alone at home with a dutiful neighbour tasked with the daily provision of food and water; that minimal requisite for survival. Increasingly, cat owners appear to be now be assuming this to be a perfectly viable recourse: that cats are assumed to be self-contained and not mind being left alone, as long as provisions are made available. Be warned that this is completely untrue, and cats left like this often run away from home.

In my opinion, the invention of automated feeding systems (such as bowls with timers that  open lids at scheduled intervals) has not been a good thing for pet animals at all. The engagement of a house or pet-sitter tasked with care and company seems a better option, and although this can and often does prove very successful for all concerned, it’s depends entirely on how wisely we choose the individual tasked to do it. Too frequently, it provides absolutely no guarantee that animals won’t be spending most of their time alone.

For street animals there can be more food available to scavenge, but the converse is that more people on the street can also be more hazardous. Bored children roaming the shantytowns of our cities often engage the local animals in a less than beneficent manner, and the sudden spike in traffic volumes markedly increases the likelihood of road traffic injuries. And increasing intakes of alcohol, particularly in the poorer neighbourhoods of our country, usually precipitates far less tolerance and increased unpredictability within communities.

(Some useful pointers, for what they’re worth: watch the interaction between children and animals and implement time-outs when excitement levels threaten to get out of hand, or when an animal is being pursued despite showing obvious signs of wanting to be left alone. Never leave animals alone when the humans have gone away, only arranging for food and water to be provided – it does not satisfy the requirement for minimum care and supervision and can precipitate serious problems. When choosing house-sitters to look after pets, rely on personal recommendations and never just choose people via the internet, local newspapers or noticeboards.)


Holidays – the animal professional’s view

When the Cape Animal Behaviour Centre was still operating, the run-up to our Christmas closing usually saw a sharp decrease in business (with the exception of our puppy socialization classes). Contrary to what might be assumed – that early in December people might choose to sort out any lingering problems with their pets before being subsumed by visitors or social obligations over the season, or that annual leave might afford the time and opportunity usually impeded by the 9 to 5 routine – it just never happened that way at all.

Instead, many problems seemed to magically diminish around this time: either a consequence of the increased attention suddenly on offer during school holidays, and/or the more relaxed ambiance at home. The daily presence of the adult male in the house also seemed to lessen the incidence or frequency of some more obvious problems. Many dogs – and this applies especially to dogs but can equally affect cats and other pet animals – are prone to inhibiting behavioural anomalies in the presence of the father/husband/male figure. The reason for this is mundanely simple, and not that which is commonly assumed. But its frequent misinterpretation tends unfortunately only to reinforce some of the worst myths about dog behaviour – in particular, the ubiquitous ‘pack leader’ trope.

In a future post I will discuss this very unfortunate meme, explain some of the reasons why it completely mischaracterizes the dog family, but also examine some of its negative fallout.


Dogs (and cats) are frequently more frightened of men than of women or children due to the size, deeper voices and possibly even smell of the former.

The explanation for why dogs often behave differently around men than they do around women and children is prosaic and unremarkable. It has nothing to do with special, gendered skills, or with any natural biological order. Dogs (and cats) are frequently more frightened of men than of women or children due to our size, deeper voices and possibly even smell. Also, more men tend to have a history of responding to problems with aggression, either in tone or behaviour, and the suppression of overt exhibitions of unwelcome behaviours in their presence does not imply resolution (or that these problems never really existed) – quite the contrary in fact.

Usually it just means that they’re being actively inhibited at that time, not resolved, and whatever initially underpinned their emergence is probably just going to ensure they’re redirected (probably as obnoxiously, or even more so than before). Most commonly, they will simply reappear once the inhibiting male figure is absent once again, this time with increased intensity due to the amplifying role frustration can play. At that point, women will again be told that it occurs because of their inability to be ‘pack leaders’, or the ‘dominant’ animal in the household. And children will continue to be bitten with ever-increasing frequency.


Keeping perspective

The increase in dog bites during holiday periods, particularly targeting children, is but one of the negatives that animal professionals recognize to be associated with these times. By early January, once the Cape Animal Behaviour Centre would customarily be reopening for business, we would suddenly be assailed with enquiries and requests for appointments. Nothing is likely to expose any underlying animal issue quite as effectively as a three week yuletide recess, with routines thrown out the window, increased volumes of both people and the noise they make or an extended interval of consolidated loneliness.

In January, animal rescue groups and shelters are routinely inundated with unwanted animals given as Christmas gifts, as well as those that had run away from abandoned homes they were left to ‘guard’. There are the injuries; from fireworks, over-exuberant children and traffic accidents, and those dogs and cats that are still missing, or were picked up and no-one will ever come to claim.

And then there is that perverse anomaly – people who will shamelessly arrive at a shelter demanding to relinquish pets for adoption or euthanasia just prior to heading off to holiday homes in more distant locations, or overseas. Most of us who’ve worked in any capacity in the rescue business for any amount of time have come across at least one of these heartbreaking conundrums.


Fondest season’s greetings, whilst still keeping it real

Please try to remain as vigilant and empathic as it can ever be possible for members of our species to be, given our elaborate cognition and mental dexterity, about the difficulty experienced by those non-human animals with whom we most closely live; difficulty in anticipating what we want, trying to live with human weirdness, human foibles and our downright unpredictability.

Please be as patient as you can, and try always to imagine yourselves trying to cope with a world not designed so intricately for your own convenience, and over which you have absolutely no control. A world where you are unable to understand intentionality or long-term projections in any way whatsoever., and where those with whom you are most closely bonded can inexplicably turn their anger towards you, without you ever being able to even figure out how to prevent its repeat.

And despite the apparently gloomy tone of this piece, it’s not meant to be invalidating – most people and the domestic animals living in our world have wonderful and mutually beneficial holiday periods together. Most pets get to spend more time with human company than at any other time of the year, and get to be outdoors and able to play together with humans, especially children, for much of the time.

Instead, this is just a cautionary reminder not to take things for granted; an attempt to instill a degree of balance and to remind you of the bigger story that usually gets addressed out of public view; one not spoken about very often for fear of being labelled “killjoy”. After all, one of the things we want to prevent is for any animal currently living as a “beast within” to inadvertently find themselves classified as a “beast without”, especially when not in possession of the experience and skill-set that such a radical lifestyle switch would require.

And so, in closing, I’d like to wish everyone a very happy and fulfilling holiday season, for both human and non-human animal alike, on behalf of myself and the rest of the Directors and Members of the Animal Rehabilitation Initiative. And I ask only that as you relax or frolic, drink and socialize, that you do so with utmost consciousness and caution at the same time.


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