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Dressing your dog up – is it ever okay?

Cody looks so handsome in his bow - a perfect way to make pets look good this Halloween season! Image: Supplied.

With the rise in social media there has been a huge increase in people dressing up their pets.

The hashtag #petcostume returns almost 50,000 hits according to the SPCA, and Americans have been reported to spend $330 million on costumes for their pets.

“While dressing up your dog has never been more popular, many leading animal charities such as RSPCA Australia, RSPCA UK and SPCA NZ have cautioned that dressing up your pets may not always be as fun for the animals involved,” says a SPCA spokesperson.

So, is it ever okay to dress your dog up in winter? With only Halloween a few days away, the SPCA have shared some considerations to take into account when dressing up your dog.

When is it a good idea?

In some circumstances, clothing may offer a welfare benefit to the dogs. For example some dogs may benefit from the warmth and waterproofing clothing provides. Dogs with little hair or body fat, such as whippets or greyhounds, get chilly and may actually benefit from an extra layer to keep them warm, particularly if you live down south.

Hairless dogs may also benefit from clothes which offer them protection from the sun’s rays in summer, but clothes should always be worn in combination with an appropriate, nontoxic sunscreen.

Like us, as dogs become older they often develop aches and pains. Clothing can be used to provide older dogs with an extra layer of comfort and may be particularly helpful for joint conditions which are aggravated by cold weather, such as arthritis.

Following surgery, clothing may also offer a welfare-friendly alternative to “the cone of shame” which is used by veterinarians to protect the surgery site and prevent your dog licking and bothering the wound. You can buy specially designed products or get creative with an old, clean t-shirt.

Research has shown that dogs with anxiety issues, such as noise phobias or separation anxiety, may benefit from wearing special clothing. Pressure wraps or pressure vests apply moderate-to-deep pressure which reduces anxiety and promotes relaxation in a variety of species, including humans.

If the clothes are something that would enhance for your dog’s welfare, you can gradually introduce them in short sessions, using treats to build a positive association.

Whenever you are putting clothing on dogs, functionality must be put ahead of fashion, dogs must be able to perform natural behaviours and owners must monitor their pets’ behaviour to ensure the clothing is not causing them stress.

What can they wear?

If you’re going to dress your dog up in any sort of clothing, consider the material. Just like you’d hate to wear an itchy jersey all day, so too would your dog. Ensure that the material is something you’d feel comfortable wearing, and that won’t overheat.

Dogs come in all shapes and sizes, so be sure that the item of clothing fits properly. Something too tight will not only be horribly uncomfortable, it can cut off circulation. Clothing that is too big could get tangled up, slip down, or fall off, risking your dog taking a tumble, tripping, or hurting themselves.

Clothing that covers a dog head to tail is too much for them. Clothing should cover the body, not their face. While it might look cute, it is also likely to be heavy and restrictive, and not a natural state for your dog to be in. Make sure your dog’s eyes, nose and mouth are uncovered as this could obstruct their airways and cause trouble breathing.

Beware of beads, pom poms, and plastic on clothing. Dogs naturally like to chew on things, and if any pieces like googly eyes, beads or buttons are hanging off, they will likely go for it. This can present a serious choking hazard for them, so be sure to cut these pieces off.

Any clothes that stop your dog from moving normally or restricts their legs, muzzle, ears, or tail should be avoided. The costume should not prevent your pup from reaching their food or water bowl, and nothing should stop them from sleeping or moving freely. If your dog is walking funny or showing signs of discomfort, you should remove the clothes immediately.

Be mindful of your dog’s body temperature. Dogs with thick fur, obese dogs or brachycephalic breeds, such as pugs, are more vulnerable to overheating.

Never leave your dog unattended in a costume or clothes. They could get tangled, choke, or overheat.

There are ways to enjoy wearing a ‘costume’ without wearing actual clothes. A dog who wears a collar is unlikely to mind wearing a novelty collar with a bow on it, or one that is highly coloured, or that has other non- interactive elements to it. A collar that is excessively heavy, has a lot of trinkets hanging off it, is too tight or loose will likely make your dog uncomfortable or unhappy. If they try to take it off, scratch, or knead at the collar, this is their way of telling you that they don’t like wearing it. A clip in bow could also be worn, or a bandana, as it wouldn’t be in their way, provided it’s not pulling on their fur or hair uncomfortably.

Watch for signs your dog may uncomfortable

Many owners are well meaning in their intentions but some pets can find being in a costume frightening. The signals which dogs use to tell us how they are feeling can be subtle, and covering up their body with clothes or a costume makes it even more difficult for dogs to communicate with us and other dogs. Be aware of your dog’s behaviour.

If you dress your dog up and notice that they have a stiff, tense body or refuse to move, shake as if shaking off water, show exaggerated body movements, put their tail between their legs, or whine or whimper, this means they are distressed and you should take the costume off them immediately. A dog uses their body to communicate and when they are restricted from doing this, it can be a scary experience for them.

Some dogs simply don’t like the feeling of confinement and will tug at any new clothes to get them off, chew the costume, or begin rubbing it on the floor. Other dogs might be nervous or anxious and will find the sudden attention and touching to be frightening. If you find that you are forcing your dog, then you’re doing it wrong.

Watch your dog’s face for other subtle signs of stress. Stressed dogs may pant excessively, yawn or repeatedly lick their lips. They may show the whites of their eyes (otherwise known as “whale-eye”), have dilated pupils, or furrowed eyebrows.

Every dog differs in its temperament, personality, and character and therefore, dogs will feel differently about wearing clothes. In saying this, a pooch who might enjoy wearing clothes one day, could feel differently about it another day.

So, if your dog is old, cold or bald, or is needing extra TLC due to recent surgery or anxiety, they may benefit from wearing appropriate clothing. If you are going to put clothes on your dog, make sure you put functionality ahead of fashion and remember, no animal should be put in danger or made to feel uncomfortable for the sake of a cute photograph, a giggle or some extra likes on social media.

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