Christmas is probably a weird time for the family animals. The outdoors comes inside and they’re not allowed to do normal outdoor things to it: Cats may not climb the tree or hide in the center to startle you. Cats may not remove foreign objects from the tree. Cats definitely must not eat tinsel from the tree. Dogs may not mark the tree as their own or happily chew it to bits. Consider the confusion of my brother’s 4-month-old puppy tonight at my mother’s house: Because mom and Bill own an oversized yellow Lab with an enthusiastic tail they always hang unbreakable and mostly soft ornaments from the lower branches in case of tail-activated launch. Dexter the pup has only recently learned soft toys exist and loves them. What is the Christmas tree, then, but a wonderful, giant compilation of his favorite thing (sticks) hung with toys?
Christmas is also potentially lethal time for the pets of stressed and distracted owners. See, for example, Cuddles, a yellow Lab who ate $7000 in Christmas ornament surgery. ‘Tis the season for selecting gifts, wrapping them in festive paper, stowing them in secret hiding places and dosing the family Labrador with ipecac after she burrows into the closet, unwraps and devours a 2-lb box of Russell Stover chocolates. Oh what a merry Christmas that was! Grade-school aged me got to learn all about poison and projectile vomiting in dogs AND had to buy dad a new Christmas present. Thanks a lot, dog. (Fun Fact the Internet Assures Me is True: According to petinsurance.com, chocolate poisoning is the number 5 reason for visiting an emergency vet on Christmas day.)
We had two black Labs growing up, each motivated nearly entirely by their mouths. Shadow was the more crafty of the two. After her taste of living on the edge (and of chocolate) she came to anticipate the annual appearance of the tree in the living room and the piles of potential edibles beneath it. I remember hearing a strange sound coming from the living room and arrived in time to find a now-elderly Shadow lying on the floor under the tree, lips pulled back as she delicately tore paper in long strips from a popcorn tin. A tin! How on earth did she smell that one out?
This is why, for years, we couldn’t put presents under the tree until Christmas eve. Shadow made an apprentice out of Skeeter, who carried on the tradition after the old girl died at the chocolate-resistant age of 15 and a half. Not all dogs display such abandon with gifts – my best friends’ old yellow Lab Jake opens his own presents every year on Christmas day but leaves the rest alone. My mother’s dog Bucky, even mouthier than Shadow or Skeeter ever were, tends to leave presents but gets excited about (apparently) delicious balls of wrapping paper. It’s made a whole new game out of opening gifts – get the paper in the trash bag before you have to extract it from the dog.
Speaking of dogs and gifts I found myself wondering this week why we buy our pets presents. They will never write thank you cards. I suppose they’re bribes, little acknowledgments of good behavior (or not) during a rather trying time. Consider a dog (or, I suppose, a non-lazy cat, but you cat people will have to just tolerate my bias on this particular piece) will probably spend most of Christmas day being decorated with a festive bandana or ribbon, shoo’d away from satisfyingly crunchy crumples of paper, pushed back inside every time the door opens to admit another unfamiliar and excitingly new-smelling visitor, being ejected from the bevy of wonderful food smells in the kitchen, told to go lie down during the feast itself, and being embarrassingly personified in treacly televsion specials (I’m looking at you, ‘Santa Buddies’ and ‘Dog Who Saved Christmas Vacation’). I suppose a new toy or some special treats are the least we can offer our faithful companions on this potentially lethal human holiday, even if they’re more likely to end up on Santa’s naughty list like my dog Jack (see photograph above).
At least he does seem to appreciate his gifts, not like those other dogs that only play with the paper.