Silly as this may seem, behavioral experts say there's a good chance they understand more than we think.
It's a given that we'll celebrate birthdays and holidays with our friends and family members, but what about our furry friends and family members? Should we also bake them a birthday cake—or pupcake—and stuff their stockings with presents? And if we do, will they understand the gesture? Jennifer Coates, DVM, advisory board member for Pup Life Today, understands the temptation to celebrate birthdays and holidays with our pets. "Pets are members of the family," she explains. "It just feels weird to overlook their milestones or not to include them fully in our celebrations."
That said, she warns that dogs, cats, and other pets might not get the meaning behind all the fuss. "Pets certainly don't understand the specifics of our celebrations, but they can still enjoy them," Coates says. "Dogs—and yes, even cats—are social beings and are able to pick up on group dynamics. When everyone… is excited and having a good time, most pets want to be included."
Pets are also highly sentient animals, says Philip Tedeschi, a human-animal behavior expert with Rover, which means that they experience complex thoughts and emotions. "So, for example, it would not be unusual for a dog to find the party atmosphere of having his or her favorite friends stop by…reason for excitement and celebration like people might experience," he explains.
For dogs especially, a party might be a welcome experience. Dogs historically lived in packs of other dogs, and they've evolved to view humans as their packs. Social interaction through a party celebrating their birthday, for instance, can feed their need for connection and affiliation, he says. Of course, not all dogs or cats will love a big get-together, Coates warns. "If a pet declines to join in or decides that they've had enough, their wishes should be respected," she explains.
If you decide to throw your pet a birthday bash or bring them in on a holiday celebration, make sure to include them in ways they'll understand, Tedeschi suggests. "Our pets are smart, and can learn many things including routines and rituals," he says. "If you want your pet to know that you are making a special event for them, offer the routine they like most with special attention to the details like going somewhere that they really enjoy—the beach or favorite swimming hole."
And if you give your pet a present for a birthday or holiday, steer clear of the cute in favor of the practical, Coates recommends. "As cute as she may look, I'd be willing to bet your cat would happily trade her tutu in for a new bed, toy, or especially delectable treat," Coates says.