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How to celebrate pet milestones and achievements

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A dog sitting on the couch

What makes a celebration even more memorable? Sharing it with our furry BFFs, of course.

Having pets by our side when we mark special occasions makes those experiences feel complete and enhances the feelings and memories we take away from the celebration (plus the adorable photo opps).

And then, of course, there are many big and small moments in our pets’ lives that we want to celebrate with them in turn.

Because pets pick up on and understand our feelings of joy and excitement, including them in special occasions or celebrating their accomplishments, as well as key milestones in their lives, is something they’re able to appreciate and enjoy.

Two dogs on a leash in a wedding

Including a pet in your celebrations

Let’s say a big day is approaching (whether that’s an anniversary, a trip, or even a wedding) and you want your pet by your side.

How can you include them in a way that’s fun and safe for them and everyone else involved? Our Animal Care Experts recommend doing the heavy lifting prep work well in advance so that you and your pet are ready to celebrate (instead of stress out) on the day.

Much of that prep work will include communication. Does your wedding venue allow dogs? Is the cottage you’ve rented for vacation cat-friendly? Ask ahead to avoid a last-minute unpleasant surprise — and so that everyone’s expectations are known and can be met in advance. When it comes to pets there’s really no such thing as over-preparing.

Expect the unexpected and pack extra patience.

Four-legged wedding guests (or attendants!)

While you might be tempted to start with the adorable wedding outfit your fur-bestie will wear on your big day (we’ll get there, we promise), if you want your pet to attend your wedding, begin by choosing a pet-friendly venue.

“Our wedding is going to be in May at a winery in Niagara on the Lake,” says Pet Valu Animal Care Expert, Lisa Sondergaard. “That was one of the first things when we were doing venue walkthroughs — asking what their policies were [regarding pets] just in case. We lucked out. All the venues we talked with said yes — with conditions.”

Something to keep in mind is that most places are not legally permitted to have animals present when food is being served. This means that your next priority will be to figure out where your pet will be and who they’ll be with while you dine with your guests.

Since everyone you know and love is likely to be at your wedding, hiring a dog sitter might be the best option.

A pet sitter can also assist in wrangling your pet during the ceremony and comforting them during some of the moments that might come as a surprise for them (no matter how many rehearsals you walk them through).

“I'm still not convinced he won't bark through the whole thing,” says Lisa of her dog Bruce, who she suspects may make his presence known at that pivotal moment when she and her partner seal the deal with a kiss.

“That's the point where a dog will start freaking out because everyone starts standing and clapping. They're like, ‘Oh, my God, something's happening!’ and then they start barking,” she says, recommending that you be ready for that exact moment. “If you have a treat prepared ahead of time that they're really into, then they'll be like, ‘Oh, cool!’”

Your wedding pet prep kit should not only be loaded with treats but also with poop bags (lots), a toy or a chew, a water dish, and an extra leash. Lisa will also be bringing a bed or a mat for Bruce to hang out on so that he has a wedding venue home base where he feels comfortable.

As for his wedding day look, Bruce will be wearing a tiny tuxedo from Pet Valu and Lisa will be making sure that he’s used to having it on. Whether your pet will be wearing a simple celebratory bandana, a floral crown, or a full wedding look, make sure it’s pet-safe and comfortable for them.

Not every pet will want to be at a wedding with lots of noise, lots of unfamiliar people, and in an unfamiliar place. If you know that these things might cause stress for your pet, there are other ways to incorporate them into the big day.

Lisa and her partner have two dogs, Bruce and Lucy. As we know, Bruce will be attending, but the actual celebration will be too much for Lucy, so the couple will be honouring her in other ways: by having a wedding photo shoot with her and Bruce ahead of the wedding day and serving a cocktail named after her at the reception.

An orange cat going out of a carrier

Making vacations and holidays extra special

Does it have to be a birthday, wedding, or major holiday for you to hire a photographer to take a pet or pet-inclusive family portrait? No! The act of having that photo taken becomes an occasion in itself, including memories you’ll take away from the experience.

Why not kick off a road trip or a pet-centred staycation with a pet photographer to capture the moment? Dress up in travel-themed outfits, DIY a backdrop, or incorporate fun holiday-themed props into the process.

You can also print the vacation or holiday photos you take yourself (hello selfies!) and put together an album that’s dedicated to your pet and the adventures you have together.

Your local Pet Valu will have celebratory clothing and toys for every occasion — from Pride Month to Christmas to Canada Day — that can help make the moments you share with your pet extra-memorable.

Birthdays and Gotcha Days: Celebrating pet milestones

What better way to celebrate another year with your pet than by marking their birthday or honouring the day they came into your life (aka their “gotcha day”) with a little something special?

Whether you go all out with a wild puppy birthday party or raise a glass of bubbles to your favourite feline while they explore their new birthday gift, there are both low-key and full-on ways to make the day memorable, while catering to your pet’s personal preferences and unique personality.

A dog wearing Party pal bandana inside the room

Celebrations for party animals

Social butterflies — the kind that say hello to every human or animal they pass on a walk — are likely to enjoy the kind of attention they’ll receive at a party thrown just for them.

These pets are the type that come running to the door with a toy in their mouths every time you get a package delivered or order a pizza. For them, entertaining is a treat and a birthday party or gotcha day party attended by their two- and four-legged faves is an ideal way to celebrate them.

To prepare, make sure the party space is pet safe (remember: just because your pet isn’t prone to snacking on your plants doesn’t mean one of their animal friends won’t be) and equipped with necessities like toys, extra leashes, snacks, poop bags, and paper towel incase of any accidents due to over-excitement.

Keep any food you may be serving your human guests well out of reach and avoid toxic foods like chocolate, macadamia nuts, sugar substitutes, and alliums like garlic altogether.

Above all, keep it FUN. Decorate with streamers or a banner, bake a pet-friendly cake (Pet Valu sells mixes you can make at home), dress up, and have your camera on hand to capture all the amazing moments that are sure to come out of such a special day.

Celebrations for the simple-is-best pet

If three is a crowd for your shy or anxious bestie, keep the celebration in the family and mark the occasion with low-key activities like an extra-long walk on their favourite route, a special meal or treat, a birthday or gotcha day bandana, or a new toy.

You can even begin a new tradition with your pet that you repeat every year on this day, like snapping their photo with a sign saying how old they are or how long they’ve been a part of your family.

Celebrating summertime together

In addition to holidays throughout the year, in Canada there are lots of seasonal-specific celebrations to embrace. Summer in general, with all its long weekends and opportunities for adventure, is definitely a season to celebrate with our pets.

Dolly Kaushal, our Director of Proprietary Brands, says Pet Valu is prepping for summer with a Summer Camp line of products to take seasonal fun to the next level.

“We're doing a Summer Camp program under our brand Jump and it's actually taking over what we did last year for Canada Day. We wanted to spread out the love — not just a one day event, but something that's more about Canadian summers outdoors, dock time and outdoor playtime,” she says.

“It has a very summer camp feel,” she adds, describing some of the new items on offer. “It has friendship bracelets that are big dog toys made of rope and a lot of water specific toys.” Naturally, there’s a Canada goose plush toy, too, the ultimate symbol of a Canadian summer.

Celebrating pet achievements

In every pet’s life, there are some hurdles to get past, changes to adjust to, and new routines to learn.

Instead of struggling through them, we turned to veterinary expert Dr. Garrett Schuilenberg for advice on how to turn these transitions into celebrations, and mark your pet’s achievement with a special treat, reward, or activity.

A cat getting cat treats

The power of paw-sitive reinforcement

For any transitional time in your pet’s life, there are three things to have on hand: encouragement, enthusiasm, and a LOT of treats.

Dr. Schuilenberg says that for pets, a high value treat or reward is a very powerful motivator. “You have to reward things immediately,” he says, “otherwise the pet isn't going to make the connection between what you're actually celebrating and the celebration itself.”

But, he adds, incremental treats can work, too. Use them in addition to the immediate rewards to mark the little milestones and achievements your pet accomplishes. For example, if your pet lasted a certain number of hours in their crate without crying, pet parents can reward those kinds of behaviours as well.

While treats are a powerful tool for both training and celebrating, you do want to make sure that you aren’t overfeeding them.

“We aim to not feed more treats than 10% of their total calorie intake per day,” says Dr. Schuilenberg. “For example, if your cat’s eating 250 calories a day then no more than 25 calories should come from treats.” To get around this, look for low calorie treats like liver snacks or use pieces of kibble in place of a treat.

In addition to treats and toys, don’t underestimate the effectiveness of using a high-pitched, happy voice to celebrate your pet, too. “Lots of baby talk is always good,” says Dr. Schuilenberg.

“High-pitched voices, lots of pats, and lots of excitement indicate to them that it's a positive experience and that they should be happy. There are studies that indicate that animals, for the most part, show some receptivity to that — even cows. There are interesting (and adorable) studies where cows produce more milk if you talk to them in high-pitched voices. Animals really respond really well to high-pitched, happy frequency sounds.”

A dog sitting in a car backseat

Turning a negative into a positive

From car trips to interactions with other animals to taking medications, there are some experiences that certain pets might prefer to avoid. Typically, their discomfort in these situations stems from fear.

To turn what might seem like an unpleasant or even scary experience into a positive one (or at least make it tolerable), pet parents should try to take a pet’s focus off of their fears and turn it towards something positive like (you guessed it) treats.

“In order to desensitize, we have to start to associate these negative situations with positive things,” Dr. Schuilenberg says. If, for example, your dog is afraid of other dogs, don’t drop them into the middle of an off-leash park. Instead, walk them past other dogs and when they don’t react, reward that with a treat.

“It’s sort of like heel training, where you're just consistently, every couple of seconds, giving them a small treat so that their focus is on you the entire time. I've heard recently from a lot of clients that clicker training is helpful as well because your pet starts to associate the clicker with a treat, and it distracts them, it gets their attention.”

The first step of turning a negative experience into a positive one, he explains, is desensitizing your pet to the stimulus that is causing them to react negatively. Then you can build up their tolerance from there.

Slow transitions for the win

Whether you’re switching your pet’s diet or introducing them to a new, four-legged family member, it’s all about going slow and giving your pet some time and space to adjust to a new routine. Change can be tough on pets so gradual adjustments work best.

“Obviously people get so excited when they get a new pet,” says Dr. Schuilenberg, “they want to throw them right in the mix and add to the family seamlessly. And of course, everyone would love that. But slowing down the transition is always a good idea.”

Not every pet is going to tolerate company, while others genuinely need it to thrive. “With a lot of small animals, you have to really do your research,” Dr. Schuilenberg advises. “A lot of these animals do better in small groups. Some of them though, hedgehogs for instance, don't do well with other animals. So you have to do your research and figure out who's a solitary animal and who is a group animal.”

If you do choose to become a multi-pet household, slow integration is the best strategy — even more so in homes with cats.

“Dogs are a little bit more adaptable,” Dr. Schuilenberg explains. “For a cat, sometimes I'll recommend keeping the new cat in an isolated bedroom or bathroom where the other cats can approach. They can sniff each other under the door but there's no direct face to face contact.”

From there, he says, “you can work up to using a baby gate or something like that. Some sort of barrier where they can see each other but still can't get to each other. Then you can move towards full interaction with each other.”

For both dogs and cats, these slow transitions, says Dr. Schuilenberg, “can lead to a much friendlier, happier household where everyone is more likely to get along. These more controlled interactions are definitely beneficial in the long term.”

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