Welcome (with a sinister witches laugh) to a controversial discussion that divides even the veterinary world. Brexit, my friends, is nothing compared to this!
Within an hour of my bosses sending this possible blog topic to my inbox, two features had arrived on my social media feeds from different veterinary groups. One showed commercial pet Halloween costumes being deliberately set on fire. Some didn’t burn but others did; one in particular was dripping hot plastic. The take home message was that purpose-sold dog costumes are unregulated and many can prove dangerous.
The other piece was from a local vets, launching a social media Halloween fancy dress competition.
So. What’s an owner to do?
The human in the room
Let’s talk first about anthropomorphism, which is a great word to be able to flick off your tongue. An-thro-po-morph-ism is the act of attributing human characteristics to animals; of assuming that they think like us. For example, in Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, the fox seeks revenge on fox-shooting farmers; he steals their food (after reviewing the ethics of this), and holds a feast with stolen cider to celebrate.
Anyway, ‘anthropomorphism’ features a lot in our debate. For example:
‘My dog wanted you to see him in his costume.’
‘He’s such an exhibitionist, isn’t he?’
‘That pug’s my style icon.’
‘Just look at him rocking that outfit.’
So just to be clear; dogs would not independently dress themselves up in clothes for your friends to admire, any more than Mr. Fox would drink cider. A handle on fashion or self-awareness of dress is not in their behavioural repertoire.
Furthermore, no dog realises that she looks like a ghost or a pumpkin, even if that it is the case. She might know that you’ve put a thing on her head, and that she’s getting extra attention. Providing that she doesn’t mind the thing on her head and enjoys the extra attention, this can be nice. BUT – and there’s always a BUT lurking, isn’t there…….?
Well actually, there are five very important BUTs. These are called The Five Freedoms.
The Five Freedoms were identified by scientists in order to assess an animal’s welfare. If the five freedoms are being met, the animal’s welfare is probably okay. It is your job as a pet owner to make sure that this is the case. Here they are:
Freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition
Wherever the party, whatever the outfit, the animal should still have free access to water and appropriate access to food. No frilly collar should prevent willingness to go to a food-bowl. Chocolate Halloween treats (which are toxic to dogs) should remain well out of reach.
Freedom from Discomfort
Costumes should be quick, easy and stress-free to get on and off. Fastenings and tighter parts of clothing should be checked regularly for rubbing. Covered skin should be checked for irritation. Furthermore, the dogs needs to be able to move around comfortably and any garments need to be appropriate to the warmth or cold surrounding them (remember that a dog is already wearing one hairy coat).
Freedom from Fear and Distress
Some dogs will make it obvious if they’re unhappy or uncomfortable; they might try to get out of their costume, or seem very restless or whine. The owners should obviously respond accordingly.
But not all unhappy dogs make it so obvious. Some just hide and try to be quiet somewhere. Others sit with their ears back, showing the whites of their eyes. This suggests fear and can, in extremis, precede a bite. It ought to be a cue to remove a costume entirely, where as some owners mistake it for cuteness.
Look at the dog in the photo – he’s not all that happy. His eyes are wide, he’s hunkering down, and his tail is low – but it isn’t obvious just from a quick glance.
It’s worth remembering that some breeds’ facial shapes have come a long way from the wolf’s, after years of selective breeding. Their ‘stress’ signals can be more difficult to identify.
And as an aside, what will you be wearing? Owners’ costumes can disguise their own body shapes, body language and facial features which can also scare or stress out their pets.
Freedom to exhibit normal behaviour.
This includes the dogs’ ability to run, jump, play, or greet other animals and people. Costumes should never prevent these things.
Freedom from pain and disease
Clothes can cause acute injury. I once found a pair of tights in a dogs’ stomach with one leg causing a huge blockage in the guts, and another time saw a length of elastic that had been caught in a taut position and absolutely shredded a pet’s small intestine. The answer to this is prevention rather than cure: if an animal has the opportunity to eat a chunk of its own costume, similar problems could occur.
Clothing that fastens too tightly can also cause injury, and in the wrong place even cut off blood supplies. I once heard about a hair-bobble that had been placed by a child on an animal’s tail and forgotten; the tail went black and horribly, painfully dropped off. We have already described the flammability of some dog coats. Always be careful.
Given all the requirements to meet the Five Freedoms, how is it possible to responsibly dress up a dog for Halloween?
And the answer is that it’s quite complicated.
1: It depends on the dog.
If your dog shows discomfort at your attempts to dress them up, do not do it. Watch your dog’s body language to help you with this, and try to read books to help you to better understand it. If you understand how wolves and different shapes of dog communicate, you will better understand what you see. A dog’s comfort always trumps your need to decorate them.
2: It also depends on the outfit.
An outfit that a dog can move in, such as a well-fitting doggy t-shirt or purpose-made fire-resistant coat, or even something that just clips to the collar, is better than something that sweeps on the ground, or flaps, or limits the animal’s hearing or vision. These might not be the most interesting or exciting outfits that you’ve seen. But do you know what? Your dog’s welfare is worth the compromise.
3: It depends on the situation.
How long will the costume be on for? It might be sweet to see a dog dressed up for a few seconds on Instagram, while enjoying being fussed and rewarded; it is quite another to expect them to trail around inhibited by the same costume for hours in a room full of strangers.
Most of all, remember that dressing a dog up benefits you more than them.
And that responsibility for their welfare lies with you. Perhaps go through the freedoms, one at a time, and consider the fairness of any proposed costume for the particular dog and situation intended.
And remember that dressing pets up is optional. If your dog doesn’t feel like being dressed up, then that ought to be okay with you.