Gee what a ride it has been so far. When restrictions hit a few months ago, it saw much of the world closed down, we started working from home if we could, and adjusting to that in itself was a mission. For the most part the veterinary world stayed much the same, so let’s have a chat about our patient’s worlds. The dogs and cats at home.
Dr Tracey Henderson, founder of Australian Veterinary Behaviour Services and educator extraordinaire at VetPrac’s Bootcamp Workshop on October 16-18, 2020, covered a lot of this information during a Vet Expo free webinar the other week. She wanted to share it with the VetPrac community, because she whats to help your patients. It is really eye opening how important the changes of working from home and the transition as we return to the office again effect our pets/patients. You might already be able to count on one hand the patients that will struggle mentally when their owner goes back to the office.
How our pets might be feeling with the ‘current situation’ with COVID restrictions:
For most pets, their world was rocked and turned upside down when COVID restrictions were introduced.
Structure and routine is very important to our pets, so changes in general can be challenging – more so for some than others.
The changes that households have experienced since COVID restrictions may include:
- Family members working from home every day
- Babies/toddlers/children at home every day
- Whereas ‘pre-COVID’ the pets may have spent 8 hours a day, 5 days a week at home alone (sometimes less, sometimes more!).
The changes that the pet might directly experience as a result of the household changes may include:
- Less ‘alone’ time – some pets might really enjoy having 8 hours a day alone to snooze. For some of these pets having children/adults home 24/7 could cause quite a bit of stress.
- Less quality daytime sleep – sleep is important for mental and physical wellbeing. Note – some pets won’t be impacted by this and will continue to sleep well.
- Lack of routine – pets thrive on structure and routine, and lack/change of can cause an increase in anxiety levels.
- Increase in frequency of walks – this could be beneficial for some dogs that enjoy walks, however for other dogs that are reactive/anxious on walks this could increase their anxiety levels on a daily basis.
- More play, social and mental stimulation – again this could be beneficial for some pets, however others may feel exhausted from this.
- Increased foot traffic passing the house due to more people out walking – this is often a problem for dogs that display territorial behaviour. This can result in them being ‘on guard’ all day, and thus cause reduced sleep and increased anxiety.
- More smells of disinfectants – dogs and cats can smell 1000X stronger than humans. Smell also plays a very important role in their communication.
These changes may have both positive and negative impacts on a pet and will vary between each individual.
How do we identify if our pets are having a difficult time with our current living??
They can’t communicate in English with us, so it is important we can understand the way they communicate.
Some signs that pets are finding life stressful might include:
- Pacing, difficulty settling and resting
- ‘Needier’ or clingy behaviour towards their humans
- Increased barking
- Increased agitation/aggression
- Less interactive with the family
- Hiding, lack of activity
- Easily startled
- Excessive grooming
- Urine spraying, toileting outside the litter tray
- Increased agitation/aggression.
If owners feel that their pet is struggling with the current change, then it is best to get professional help ASAP. Because then the pet can be ‘set up to succeed’ when the family structure/routine changes again when restrictions are eased.
Some pets may not be experiencing any signs of stress or negative impact at this stage – these are the pets that are likely loving having their humans with them 24/7. These pets however may be more likely to develop stress and anxiety when restrictions do ease and they are suddenly left home alone for longer hours.
How to set up our pets for success when restrictions ease:
It is important to prepare our pets in advance – it is better to be ‘proactive’.
- Routines – change routines gradually to mimic ‘post-COVID’ life
- Alone time – ensure pets are routinely being left alone for short periods, in a similar manner/routine as they would when owners are at work for the day. It is important for our pets to help them to retain their skills for coping when alone. This can be difficult when owners are at home working – but even if they can go for a short drive or a walk without their pet on a semi regular basis.
- Enrichment – ensure the pet has mental enrichment in the forms of food dispensing toys, chew, and toys (whatever the pet enjoys). This is important when being left alone, to help the pet be distracted and enjoy their time alone.
- Camera – there are many different video cameras available now. How do we know what the pet is doing when they are alone? We don’t want to rely on obvious information such as destruction or escaping. It is important to be able to identify the more subtle signs that the pet is not coping, so that help can be sought early on.
- Safe place – it is important for pets to have a ‘safe place’ – somewhere they can go that is secure and they enjoy. For some dogs this may be a kennel, crate or a certain room of the house, where they may choose to rest. It is important when being left alone they have access to such an area also.
What can we learn from COVID restrictions? ….The days are long!
We have experienced now what it is like to be restricted at home, 24/7. This is what our pet’s life is on a daily basis. Most people are working really hard to maintain some physical and mental stimulation as well as social connections – these are all really important basic needs for humans to ensure wellness. Please keep in mind what our pets experience when we suddenly go back to ‘life’ and they are left alone for long periods again. They need mental, physical and social enrichment just like we do, so please ‘don’t drop the ball’ and forget about this when life goes back to ‘normal’.
If pet behaviour is something that interests you or you just want to be better equipped to help your patients in clinic, join us at Bootcamp 2020, where the first day is dedicated to animal behaviour with Dr Tracey Henderson and Tracy Irons.