By David Mittens
For decades, American cats and dogs have sat in kitchen or living room corners and watched with sympathy as their owners displayed clear symptoms of anxiety and depression during the holiday season. Traditionally, at this time of year, sane and stable pets have been a source of comfort to people in various stages of downward mental spiraling.
But now, in the final phase of capitalism known as “Fiendish and Frenzied Consumerism,” many cats and dogs complain of the same symptoms they’ve long observed in human beings during the run-up to Christmas. As a result, increasing numbers of sleepless and troubled pets are turning to psychotherapy for relief from what veterinarians have labeled “secondhand holiday stress.”
“The analogy to secondhand smoke is perfectly apt,” said Patricia Snowball, director of veterinary psychiatry at the Institute for Feline Anxiety Disorders at Harvard University. “House pets do not directly feel the burden of family tradition; they take no direct part in balancing the demands of shopping, hosting parties, making cookies, wrapping gifts, looking for scissors and Scotch tape, and dealing with unwanted house guests. Yet cats and dogs most definitely do absorb the intolerable stress their masters feel from the weight of such responsibilities.”
A 35-pound Labrador retriever named Betty is a case in point. Betty (not her real name) suffered a nervous collapse in mid-December of last year after watching her owner, an irritable man of 52, simultaneously plan a small Christmas party and prepare for out-of-town family guests.
“Something about watching this pathetic person—my owner—flail and sweat and cut his thumb while attempting to wrap a few simple gifts,” said Betty, “then seeing him stare into the linen closet and forget what he was looking for, pulling down bedspreads, sheets and pillowcases onto his feet…Something about all this, along with his overdrinking and compulsive snacking, made me lose it. I had a breakdown.”
Betty has since recovered and is faring well in a new home, with help from a rescue owner, weekly visits to a psychotherapist, and the right combination of Lexapro and Wellbutrin.