Pets, Places, & Things, Points on Pets

Tired of being cooped up?  Your pet may be as well.

By Cindy McGovern

Tired of being cooped up?  Your pet may be as well.

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been profound, with more than 100,000 American lives lost and over two million infected.  From stay-at-home orders, to social distancing, telework and school closings, the past few months have been stressful for everyone.  It’s important, as conditions continue to change, to remember your pet is not immune from stress and confusion.

Your stress and anxiety can be felt by your pet and unlike you, they have no idea why their lives were turned upside down.  Dogs are particularly sensitive to human reactions, Recent studies have shown that the canine brain can pick up on emotional cues from a person’s voice, body odor, and posture; dogs can also read their owner’s face.  Cats likewise respond to changes in your voice and are keen observers of body language.

Stay-at-home orders forced us to establish new routines.  Some pets certainly welcomed the extra attention and quality time with their owners, but not all.  According to Tufts University, many owners are finding their pets are needier than normal.  They may be underfoot more, demanding attention or food, or barking to go outside.

Pet owners may also find their dogs barking more while on walks.  With gyms closed, more people are taking to the outdoors with their dogs. And while your dog may enjoy the extra walks, they may also exhibit more territorial barking with the increased pet traffic.

Cats in particular are change-averse and like predictable routines.  With schools out and kids at home, you may find your cat withdrawing and escaping to a quiet, secluded spot.  A stressed cat may also groom more than normal or urinate outside the litter box.

Some signs of stress in pets can be similar to illness. The following are the most serious signs of stress in cats and dogs and worth a call to your vet to rule out anything serious:

  • Loss of appetite, retching, increased stool production, or diarrhea
  • Excessive shedding or overgrooming
  • Panting or excessive vocalizing
  • Increased sleeping or hyperactivity
  • Destructive behavior
  • Accidents in the house
  • Acting especially clingy or avoidance

So what can you do to help your pet through these stressful times?  Be patient with your pet.  For all of us, the rules have changed and your pet may be exhibiting new or even destructive behavior.  Remember they’re not being naughty on purpose; they’re engaging in those behaviors because they don’t understand the changes going on around them and don’t know any other way to express themselves.

It’s also important to establish and stick to a routine, from meal times to outdoor/play time.  If your dog was normally crated for part of the day, ensure he still has access to the crate and can retreat there for naps or rest.  Did you leave a Kong or treat for your dog when you went to work?  Continue those practices as well; not only will your dog appreciate it, it can be an effective distraction for them when you have an important phone call or video conference.

Mental exercise is just as important to your pet as physical exercise and can alleviate stress and boredom in dogs.  Instead of your normal walk around the neighborhood, try a “Sniffari walk.” Let your dog take the lead and follow their nose wherever it wants to go while you follow along to keep them safe. A Sniffari allows the dog the freedom to check out new smells while their brains are processing new information, burning energy, and allowing them do decompress.

Inside, try interactive toys and brain games.  Keeping your dog engaged can result in less destructive behavior.  Hide treats or dry food in the home and allow your dog to find them.  Dogs are natural foragers, so making them work at bit is a great way to work their brains and keep them occupied.  Puzzles and games don’t have to be expensive with do it yourself options abounding online and using simple household items like plastic water bottles, or muffin tins.  According to the American Kennel Club, mental fatigue makes dogs feel more physically tired than physical effort alone.

For cats, use the time at home to play with them more or introduce interactive toys.  Cats also enjoy cat condos or places to hide. Feeding puzzles can also provide mental stimulation while cats ‘’hunt’’ for the food inside.

Cats naturally require quiet time.  Let them chose where to spend it and then leave them alone to enjoy it.  This is especially important if there are small children in the house; once the cat finds their safe space, don’t pick them up, move them, or feed them.  This is their time to decompress and relax.

Begin planning now for a return to normal and consider how you will acclimate your pet to your return to work.  If you’ve been home every day for months, expect some separation anxiety.  Signs could include whining, crying, pacing, panting, or destructive behavior.  Ideally, you would gradually increase your time out of the home and away from your pet to allow them to adjust to the new normal.  They will need to relearn the skill of being able to entertain themselves and enjoy their time alone.

According to multiple media reports, a record number of pets were either adopted or fostered in the past few months, leaving many shelters almost empty.  The adjustment for these new family members will be even harder; they won’t remember a time when you weren’t home.  In that case, routine, structure, and extra attention when you are home will be even more important.

Veterinarians and animal behaviorists hope the enforced time at home leads owners to a better understanding of their pets’ needs and a taste of how pets spent their time when they were home alone.  All pets need mental stimulation, social contact, and exercise to be healthy and happy.  While they are getting it in excess now, the challenge will be keeping it up when their owners leave the home.

Cindy McGovern is a volunteer at King Street Cats in Alexandria and lives in Springfield with two spoiled Siberian cats.


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