Between nonstop news and social media use, we’re all too familiar with the effects of COVID-19 on humans around the world. But the lives of our furry friends have also been impacted in ways large and small. Whether your dog is bummed because admirers can’t pet her during walks or your cat is alarmed by your 24/7 work-from-home presence, nobody has escaped the impact of the pandemic.
We talked to three veterinarians — Tory Waxman, chief veterinarian at Sundays; Jamie Richardson, chief of staff at Small Door Veterinary; and Danielle Bernal, global veterinarian with Wellness Natural Pet Food — who weighed in about how lockdown has affected pets and how to prepare them for our eventual return to the workplace.
How has lockdown affected pets?
Bernal: The past few months have seen many of us make sure that we are there for our pets just as much as they are for us. We’ve loved having our dogs sit by our feet, follow us around and go out with them on long daily walks. However, any changes in routine can leave pets feeling anxious or stressed, so it’s important for pet parents to make proper adjustments to help the time at home stay equally as beneficial for both parties.
Richardson: Unless your pet is particularly independent, they are likely to have loved having you around almost 24/7 during lockdown! For most pets, it will have been a very enjoyable time — and they’ll have been making the most of the extra attention and cuddles. There are, however, a few other effects that some pets may experience: increased dependency, weight gain/loss of fitness and missed veterinary appointments.
If we’re continuing to work remotely, how can we make that situation more comfortable for our pets?
Waxman: Exercising your pets (both physically and mentally) is a great way to keep them content in our new reality. It’s important to start gradually with physical exercise. Once your pup is in shape, a few miles of walking before an important meeting will help ensure they sleep right through it. Additionally, mental stimulation can be very helpful when the weather is bad or you just don’t have time for a walk. For dogs, frozen Kongs, snuffle mats and puzzle toys are all great options. We use a Manners Minder treat dispenser in our office to reward our dogs to rest quietly while we work. For cats, the Doc & Phoebe Indoor Hunting Feeder is a great way to get a cat to exercise while being mentally stimulated.
Bernal: Continue a regular routine, allow them to have their own space to retreat to that they feel comfortable in, daily exercise and mental stimulation. Help your dog with some social time with other dogs such as time at the dog park now that most areas are out of stay-at-home orders, and look to doggy daycare options. This will give your dog some doggy time that they simply love as well as bring them home ready for a good night’s sleep!
Giving your dog some alone time where you are out of the house is also important, even if you aren’t planning on going back to work anytime soon. Thirty to 60 minutes a day will help minimize their anxiety for when you do go back to work. Remember during these times to avoid emotional departures or greetings and give them their favorite distraction several minutes prior to your leaving the home. Long-lasting food treats or favorite toys are a good tip here.
Will they be glad when we go back to work? Will they miss us?
Waxman: Our pets will definitely miss us but will also enjoy some time on their own! For some pets, it is hard for them to truly relax with us around all the time.
Richardson: Some independent pets may enjoy time to themselves, but many pets may miss us. If the transition back to work is a sudden one, your pet may display signs of separation anxiety, even if they have never experienced it before. Common signs of anxiety in pets include aggression, soiling in the home, destructive behavior, excessive barking/whining/meowing, pacing or restlessness, changes in appetite or weight, change in mood, repetitive or compulsive behaviors, shaking/trembling/tiding, tail-tucking and excessive licking or chewing, which may result in reddened skin and/or bald patches.
Bernal: Dogs have loved us being home and even if they are a dog who is content on their own, they will miss having us there to keep them company. There’s a chance that our dog may have become more attached to us than normal, potentially causing separation anxiety in the coming weeks as we start to go back to work or our daily lives. Separation anxiety is a behavioral reaction triggered when dogs become upset because of separation from their guardians, the people they are attached to the most.
How can we prepare pets for the end of lockdown?
Waxman: If you expect to eventually go back to work for most of the day outside your home, start teaching your pet in small increments of time to be content when you are not around. Start with leaving them in a safe place (enclosed room or crate) for short periods of time. Make sure to actually leave your home or apartment during these times away — your pet is smart enough to know if you are just in the other room. Also, start up a routine similar to that of your routine if you were to go into the office. Wake up, feed and exercise them at the same time as if you were going to work. Just like us, dogs and cats thrive with predictable routines.
Richardson: Associate your absence with positive rewards. When you leave your pet alone, give them a special treat, Kong frozen with peanut butter or low-sodium broth or other high-value reward that you only give during this alone time.
Provide a ‘den’ for your pet. Consider crate-training your dog if you haven’t already, or use a gated space. A crate provides a safe space for your dog to retreat to when they are anxious. Cats enjoy a quiet, darker space, tucked away from busy areas of the home. Always use exciting rewards so they come to love this space.
Increase exercise and play before leaving. Tire out your pet before you leave. If a pet has lots of excess energy, it’s more likely to turn into nervous energy and fuel separation anxiety. Take dogs for a long walk or run before work, or have a vigorous play session with both dogs and cats to help mentally stimulate and tire them out.
Switch up your routine when leaving home. If you follow the same routine, your pet may pick up on this and notice those departure cues: the sound of your keys, putting on shoes or grabbing a bag. Mix things up so your pet doesn’t associate these signals with you leaving and subsequently with anxiety.
How will going back to work outside the house affect pets that were adopted during the pandemic?
Waxman: Going back to work will be hard on pets that were adopted during the pandemic, as many have never been left alone for long periods of time. Work on leaving your pet for short periods of time, slowly working up to long stretches out of the house, reflective of your actual workday. For some dogs, going to doggy daycare or having a dog walker will be part of their routine — it’s a good idea to acclimate your pup to these activities now so it’s already part of their routine when you do go back to work.
Bernal: For adopted pets, going back to work may be a new experience entirely for them and exacerbate the chance of them demonstrating separation anxiety. Training your dog to spend time alone is crucial. Doggy daycare or having a walker come in to your home while you are at work is an option for many dogs. Let your dog meet the walker when you are home so they get to know them. For doggy daycare, work with your local facility to see if you can take your dog early on the morning they are due to start so that it is less daunting compared to entering a full room of dogs.
What other effects of the pandemic have you seen on pets?
Richardson: We have observed that pet owners are noticing things that they may not have previously noticed now that they’re home more frequently — medical problems like allergy symptoms (such as itching or paw licking), the frequency of seizures, changes in mobility or odd behaviors. Pet owners are picking up on things their pet may be experiencing with greater frequency.