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Taking the Spooky Out of Halloween Costumes

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For many pets, there is no escaping Halloween. Each year, people dole out more than $370 million in pet costumes so that their four-leggers can join them in celebrating this bewitching holiday, according to the National Retail Federation.

This begs the question: do dogs and cats view donning costumes as a welcoming treat or a cruel trick? Does your dog really want to be a four-legged Batman, a pirate, or a stegosaurus?

The answer depends on your pet. Don’t let your excitement blind you from paying attention to how your dog reacts to wearing attire. If he starts doing a Snoopy dance of delight, chances are good that he adores the attention he gets for dressing up. But if he hangs his head, lip licks, shakes or hides under the dining room table, chances are good that the only attire he will tolerate are his collar and ID tags.

“There are pros and cons in dressing up dogs and cats,” says Allen Schoen, DVM, Ph.D., a pioneer in integrative animal health care. “Dressing up pets is an opportunity for some people to just be joyful, fun loving, and it brings the child out in us. It can increase our laughter, which is all positive in supporting our overall health and immune system, but care must be taken to make sure that the pet also enjoys being dressed up as well.”

Agreed. So, recently, I purchased a slew of pet costumes to gauge the acceptance in my dogs, Kona, Cleo and Bujeau. Here are the results with photos:

  • Kona, my 3-year-old loves-to-please terrier mix: I fitted her with an outfit that features a cowboy holding a yellow cowboy hat in one hand as he holds the “reins” in his other. Kona’s response: Folded back ears, frozen-in-place pose, and downward tail were clear signs she was tolerating and hoping to buck off this costumed cowboy from her body.

    Kona votes tail down on a cowboy costume. Read your dog’s body language to know how he really feels about Halloween attire.
  • Bujeau, my 6-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog mix: Don’t let her 65 pounds fool you. She is sweet but leery of new people and changes inside the house. I knew better than to adorn her in a complicated costume with lots of attachments. I just put a red super hero cape on her. Bujeau’s response: She took time to sniff out the cape. Once I placed it on her, she happily plopped into a down position on the living room floor and didn’t fuss with the cape.

    Bujeau’s relaxed body language indicates her acceptance of a superhero cape.
  • Cleo, my 15-year-old retired canine surfer: At her senior stage in life, I wanted to go low-key. After a brief cuddle session, I place this pink cowboy hat on her head. Her flopping ears were not irritated when I slipped the hat’s drawstring under her chin. Cleo’s response: Total acceptance. She even agreed to strike a relaxed pose and look right at my camera lens.

    Senior dog Cleo is accepting and adorable in her pink cowboy hat.

So, the score in my household in favor of wearing costumes was two big yeses (Bujeau and Cleo) and one no thank yous (Kona).

Here are some parting tips to help you keep Halloween from becoming “howl-i-ween” time for your pets:

  • Make sure the costume does not impede your dog’s ability to walk, eat, or potty.
  • A welcoming pet costume remains securely in place without being too tight or too loose. Tight clothing can impair circulation, and a loose outfit can get tangled or cover the pet’s eyes.
  • Skip outfits made with buttons (easy for a pet to swallow and choke), and opt for Velcro closures.
  • Know your dog’s energy level and temperament. Nervous Nellies and door dashers are not ideal pets for costume wearing. Never force a pet to wear an outfit if he gives clear signals he feels uncomfortable by pawing at the outfit, cowering, whining or trying to flee the scene.
  • Scrutinize costumes before purchasing to make sure they are made of breathable fabric and are fire retardant.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT

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