By Paula Fitzsimmons
We may love the scares and revelry of Halloween, but it can be quite a frightening time for pets. Elaborate costumes, ringing doorbells and toxic treats are just some of the things that can heighten pet stress and increase the risk of pet emergencies.
Keep Halloween fun and hazard-free for furred family members (and human ones, too) with the following Halloween safety tips, provided by veterinarians and pet safety experts. The key is to plan as early as possible; it’s never too soon to start strategizing.
To increase your odds of having a safe (and fun) event, start thinking about implementing Halloween safety tips now. “We encourage our clients to begin thinking about what their ‘trick or treat’ is going to look like when the children go back to school, as pet parents often have a little more free time to fit training into their schedule,” says Brenda Belmonte, founder and owner of Two Paws Up Dog Training in Lake Bluff, Illinois.
This is a good time to assess your pet’s needs and decide if they would be comfortable in the hustle and bustle of Halloween celebrations. “The biggest thing is deciding if the dog [or cat] is the kind who would enjoy being around the chaos and excitement of Halloween or not. It’s one thing to be comfortable around people; it’s another to be around people dressed up,” says Robin Bennett, a certified professional dog trainer in Stafford, Virginia.
Experts recommend keeping animals at home on Halloween. “While dogs are fantastic at recognizing faces, the additional makeup, masks and costumes can cause even the most calm and friendly dog to become scared. In addition, children get really excited about candy and are often screaming, yelling and running to the next house,” says Jenn Fiendish, a veterinary behavior technician who runs Happy Power Behavior and Training, based in Portland, Oregon. It’s hard to predict how a pet will react to Halloween pandemonium, so err on the side of safety.
Think about where you’d like to set up your companion’s safe space. “Most cats and dogs will do fine in a back bedroom with the door closed and treats to keep them occupied,” says Dr. Liz Stelow, chief of service of Clinical Behavior Service at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at University of California, Davis. Especially nervous dogs may appreciate the added security of their dog crates covered with a light towel or blanket to mute the noise.
Bennett recommends giving them something that takes time to chew on, like a safe bone or Kong Classic dog toy stuffed with food. “Initially, leading up to Halloween I would be making sure they know how to use it, so they’re not frustrated the first time when you’ve left them alone.” Catnip is an excellent way to distract kitties who are confined for their own safety.
“The repetitive ringing of the bell, combined with the typical arousal most dogs have when it rings, is a recipe for reactivity,” says Belmonte, who is a certified professional dog trainer and author. She recommends disabling the doorbell or waiting near the door to greet trick-or-treaters before they have an opportunity to press the doorbell button.
Or, teach your dog to equate the doorbell with dog treats. “Practice by having someone ring the doorbell, and every time the doorbell rings, show the dog something really good, like chicken or cheese. And then throw that food into another area of the home, like the kitchen,” says Bennett.
Dogs will eventually figure it out. “’Wow, this is going to be cool. I just hang out over here and get treats.’ But you have to practice that leading up to Halloween, so it makes the whole Halloween experience more calm, less chaotic,” explains Bennett.
Preventing escapes and pet emergencies is easier than having to locate a lost animal. Put pet safety devices in place, says Bennett. “Even with a dog that won’t usually run out the door, there are so many opportunities for it on Halloween. So either have baby gates where they have to go through in order to escape, or a leash on your dog so you can actually hold them, or put them in another room.”
Fit your pet with a good collar that has an ID tag on it, even when inside. “There are many reflective collar and harness options that your pet can wear should they accidentally get out of the house, and these will make it easier for someone to see if your pet is out at night. It’s not uncommon for pets to get so scared that they run away, and this is the best chance of getting them home safe and sound,” says Fiendish.
If you haven’t already, take this time to discuss microchipping your pet with your vet. “Microchipping your pets increases your chances of a reunion in the event of a separation. In addition to keeping up-to-date identification tags on your pet at all times, talk with your veterinarian about microchipping, and ensure your account and contact information is kept current,” says Dr. Ari Zabell, a Vancouver, Washington-based veterinarian with Banfield Pet Hospital.
Download and familiarize yourself with the ASPCA Mobile App. It provides instructions on what to do if your pet becomes lost, and helps you create a digital lost pet flyer to share on social media, says Dr. Tina Wismer, medical director at ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center in New York City.
Start by choosing your pet’s Halloween costume carefully. “It should never limit a pet’s movement, sight, ability to breathe or ability to bark or meow. Be sure that the costume doesn’t have small pieces that could be chewed or bitten off and present a choking hazard,” says Dr. Wismer.
Wearing costumes can be stressful for many pets. If they don’t want to wear it, don’t force them; instead, opt for something low-key. “A simple accessory such as a bandana or bowtie can be a nice compromise,” says Dr. Zabell, who is a board-certified veterinary practitioner.
If you do go for a more involved costume, try getting your pet accustomed to wearing the costume well beforehand. “I would test it out, have them be comfortable in it, walk around in it, before Halloween. And I would make it fun—once they get on their costume, I’d give them lots of treats,” says Bennett.
Costumes and masks that people wear can be scary for pets, too. Practice wearing them around your companion in advance of Halloween. “Always allow the dog to approach the costume on his own terms, and never force a dog to approach! You may need to have your child wear the costume without a mask and give treats to help form a positive association,” says Belmonte.
Halloween treats contain a number of ingredients that can compromise pet safety. Chocolate contains theobromine, which can be poisonous to your pet if ingested, says Dr. Zabell. Candy can upset the stomach, resulting in diarrhea or vomiting. Caramel apple sticks and candy wrappers can be swallowed and cause choking or intestinal blockage, he adds.
Many candies also include Xylitol, which can be potentially life-threatening to animals. “Don’t leave all of that Halloween candy lying around for grabs. Elevate candy bowls to countertops,” advises Dr. Zabell. If your pet is a counter surfer, keep the candy inside a secure cabinet.
An online chocolate toxicity meter for dogs can give you an idea of just how dangerous different types and amounts of chocolate can be, but if you are concerned that your dog might have gotten into chocolate, immediately consult with your veterinarian.
The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center Mobile App can also help you quickly identify hundreds of potential hazards. “The app also includes a calculator for chocolate toxicity, helping you to see what action you need to take if your pet consumed chocolate based on the type and amount of chocolate, the type of pet and their size and weight,” says Dr. Wismer, who is board-certified in veterinary technology.
If you’re certain that your companion won’t do well at home, consider hiring a pet sitter or making an appointment at a daycare facility, advises Bennett. A lot of pet lodging facilities now offer Halloween parties for dogs, she says.
“And those reservations, I would make in advance. Get a reservation early, so you don’t even have to worry about them at the house, and they could have fun at their own little party at a pet resort.”
Ditto if booking a pet sitter. Don’t just assume someone will be available on Halloween. Take the time to find a qualified professional pet sitter and make sure you tell them about any Halloween-specific concerns you have.
Halloween decorations that we find appealing can be toxic or hazardous to animals. If you plan on purchasing candles, for example, think ahead about where you’ll place them. Remember that cats can jump onto counters and other high places.
“Keep lit candles far from wagging tails and curious noses and whiskers. Your pets can burn themselves or knock over a candle, creating a fire hazard. Some pets may even try to eat a candle after the flame has gone out, which could make them very ill,” says Dr. Zabell.
Also keep glow sticks off your shopping list, or place them where pets can’t reach them. “We frequently get calls around Halloween about pets puncturing glow sticks. While many of them are relatively non-toxic, they have an extremely bitter taste and can cause pets to have a taste reaction, including drooling and racing around the home,” says Dr. Wismer.
Most popular Halloween plants, such as pumpkins and decorative corn, are relatively nontoxic to animals, but could still cause stomach upset, she says.
Speak to your vet or behaviorist for other holiday safety tips. Fiendish recommends asking your vet about pet behavior meds that can help keep your pet calm for the day would be a good fit.
“If you’d rather try a holistic approach, options such as the calming body wraps, pheromone products, and over-the-counter anti-anxiety supplements may be useful,” says Fiendish. Be sure to test them out before Halloween arrives to determine which works best for your pet.