For humans, birthday celebrations are an annual way to celebrate our loved ones. So it’s no surprise that more and more dog owners are planning special celebrations to acknowledge their four-legged family members, whether it’s their birthday or the anniversary of the day they arrived to their forever home.
“These days, dogs are considered part of the family. We give them human names, personalized goodies, human-grade food, and even celebrate their birthdays," says Nicole Ellis, a pet expert and certified dog trainer with Rover. “As more and more dog lovers consider their pooch to be part of the family, rather than just a pet, count on birthdays and ‘Gotcha days’ to become increasingly popular.”
For families who have opened their home to a rescue dog and may not know their exact birthday, “Gotcha Days” are an opportunity to celebrate the day they became part of the family. “Gotcha Days spread an important message—the importance of adoption,” adds Tiffany Lacey, executive director of Animal Haven in New York City. “Shelters are full all around the country—and across the world—so by adopting, you’re saving a life and adding love to your own…and the Gotcha Day is just a part of a larger wonderful package.
Here are some tips for celebrating your dog’s birthday or “Gotcha Day.”
1.) Throw a Party
Whether it’s a birthday for a human baby or a fur baby, planning a party is always the obvious choice. You can keep it simple with a special hat, bandana, or outfit for the birthday dog and a few close family members or friends—don’t forget the dog-friendly cake or ice cream!—or choose a theme and throw a big bash with add-ons like a photo booth or tennis ball pit. “Dogs are family and should be treated as such; if your son is into Superman, you have a Superman-themed party…and you can do the same for your dog,” says Angela Marcus, co-founder of Get Your Pet. She advises thinking about what your dog likes to do—for example, if they love to swim, host a pool party—and plan their gathering around their favorite activities.
“If your home isn’t set up for a dog party, don’t fret. If you're planning a dog birthday party during the spring or summer, check your local park’s rules and break out the portable BBQ. Public parks and beaches that allow dogs are an easy-breezy way to enjoy the sun and each other’s company,” Ellis says. Depending on how many people are coming, you can also make special arrangements with your local dog-friendly pub or restaurant. “When talking to the venue, just be sure to ask how large the space is. Dogs need plenty of wiggle room to mingle without feeling closed in, just like us,” she adds.
No matter where the party is being held, always keep safety in mind and ensure your pet and his or her four-legged party guests have access to plenty of fresh water, rest breaks, and shade. And don’t forget the poop bags! “Showering your dog with attention, treats, and presents shows them they're appreciated and part of your pack. A successful celebration of your dog will reinforce a mutually-loving relationship between you and your dog,” Ellis says. “Dogs lives are so much shorter than ours, so it's nice to be able to celebrate these little milestones together.”
2.) Give Back
If your dog just isn’t a party animal, many pet owners will skip the cake and presents and instead take the opportunity to give back in their pet’s name. According to Lacey, many adopters make an annual donation to the shelter or rescue where they adopted their dog as a way to commemorate their dog’s special day. “There are so many ways to celebrate, but we love the idea of giving back, she says. “Monetary donations are wonderful, but in-kind donations like linens, food, and supplies are also a great way to give.”
Still want to host a party? Christie Keith, social media manager for Shelter Pet Project, says there’s nothing wrong with asking your party guests to bring a donation of toy, treats, or bedding for a local animal shelter or rescue organization. If you have a purebred dog, you can also consider tying your pet's birthday party to a fundraiser for the breed club's rescue efforts. “Or you can get all your friends together and go to the shelter for a day of dog-walking and volunteering, and bring some of the joy your dog has given you to a homeless pet,” Keith says. “The best way to honor the bond of unconditional love between you and your dog is to help another person and pet find the same bond with each other.”
Along with making donations of money, supplies, or your time, Terran Tull, Dogtown behavior consultant with Best Friends Animal Society, suggests posting the celebration on your social media to help show people that dogs from shelters and rescues make wonderful companions. “You can tag the rescue or shelter you adopted your dog from so that friends and family members can browse their adoptable animals, or turn the ‘Gotcha Day’ celebration into a fundraiser for the organization where you got your dog…and encourage people to go meet the other wonderful dogs the group has up for adoption and find out how they can help,” she adds.
And if your best friend has crossed the Rainbow Bridge, Marcus notes that you can still make a donation in their name at a favorite rescue organization.
3.) Give presents
Whether you have two legs or four, both dogs and humans alike love getting gifts. Some dogs may even be able to figure out how to open the wrapping paper on their own. “Does she love tennis balls? Get 50 of them and watch the excitement unfold. Are bones his thing? Buy out the store. Or, if they're an active dog, maybe spoil them with a new collar or leash and take them for a nice birthday stroll,” Ellis suggests.
However, if you plan to offer special treats as presents for your pooch, just be sure to check in with your veterinarian to ensure the ingredients are acceptable for your pet. You can even bake your own birthday cakes with dog-friendly ingredients. “Also note that if you’re giving treats to several dogs, make sure they have space from each other so there aren’t any disagreements about sharing the food,” Tull advises. “Even if your dog can typically share food, having lots of new people and dogs around might make them a little less tolerant.”
For dogs who have been bitten by the travel bug, grab the pet-friendly seatbelt and spend their birthday or “Gotcha Day” on the road. You don’t even have to go far—Fido will be happy spending the day traveling to his favorite spots, like the dog park or beach.
“It’s always nice to do some traveling, particularly if you and your dog have a jet-setter type of personality,” Marcus says. “There are great resources now all over the country for traveling with your dog, like bed and breakfasts that invite you to bring your dog along, and many of them even offer dog-friendly meals and other types of events or outings.”
5.) Consider Your Dog’s Needs and Personality
Since this day is all about your special pooch, you’ll want to take their individual personality and any special needs into consideration. “People should ensure that however they choose to celebrate is something their dog would enjoy,” Tull says. For instance, a shy dog might get very overwhelmed with a big party with a lot of people and other dogs. “On the other hand, if you have a gregarious ‘never met a dog or person I didn't like’ pup, that dog may love a gathering at a dog park with his buddies, a group hike, or if he goes to doggie daycare, invite his pals and their people to something there,” she adds.
If your dog has dietary restrictions, you can replace the traditional birthday cake with something they can enjoy, or opt for a pile of chew toys. “If your dog isn’t as spry as they used to be, be sure to provide plenty of breaks or a place to retreat so they don’t get overwhelmed by all of the excitement,” Ellis adds. “Whether your puppy is ready to celebrate their first year, or a senior dog who has lived a full and glorious life, birthdays can be tailored to your dog’s needs.”
6.) Keep it Simple
If party planning just isn’t your thing, keep in mind that most dogs are more than happy just to spend some extra time with you. “We live in a very rushed, over-booked, stressful world. If celebrating your dog's birthday or adoption day is going to be one more item on your to-do list that fills you with dread, don't do it,” Keith advises. “Wake up and tell her you love her and wish her a happy birthday. Give her an extra walk or an extra treat. Your dog doesn't know it's her birthday, and to her, just being with you is celebration enough.”