Many of our companion animals are benefiting from having their people at home all of the time during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions are starting to ease in many places, many of us will start to spend more time away from the home and this change may be stressful and confusing for our pets. Fortunately, there are lots of steps we can take to help our pets adjust to this change.
Keep a regular routine
The current situation has rapidly evolved and required all of us to make dramatic changes to our lives. Like us, animals can find unpredictability and dramatic changes to routine stressful. Maintaining a regular schedule can reduce stress by ensuring your companion animal has as normal a routine as possible. Keep to a schedule of feeding, exercise, toileting, rest and one-to-one time. As much as possible try to keep this routine as similar to your normal non-pandemic routine as possible, so there is less change for your animal to cope with when the time comes.
If you are working from home, try to start and finish work at the same time each day and schedule breaks into your day. During these breaks make sure you spend some quality time with your pet.
It is important to make sure our companion animals get some alone time, even if we are staying home most of the time at the moment. This will help your pets adjust to you spending more time away from them again, by providing opportunities for them to spend some time happily alone even when you are home.
Teach them to feel secure alone
It is important to teach your pet to feel secure and contented when they are alone. This will help your pet cope better when you all return to work or school and a more normal life.
A good way to get your pet used to spending some time happily alone is to set them up alone in a separate room which is safe and comfortable, with something delicious to eat and something fun to do. If they are not used to being left alone, start doing this for just short periods and gradually increase the length of time you are away (e.g. at first leave them alone for only 5 or 10 minutes).
If you have a dog, take some walks without them, leaving them at home alone (in a safe space with things to do as suggested above). If you have more than one dog, it may also be a good idea to occasionally walk them separately so that they are comfortable being apart.
Enrichment for alone time
When leaving your pets alone, we recommend giving them a special treat to keep them occupied and to help build a positive association with being on their own. You can hide treats for them to find (be sure to start easy at first to keep them motivated), use a puzzle feeder, give them a safe toy to cuddle, play with or chew.
Enrichment toys are a great way to keep your pet entertained and to keep them mentally and physically stimulated; for example treat dispensing toys or games that encourage a pet to explore and be rewarded for self-initiated play. Rotate the toys every day so your pet doesn’t get bored with them. You can make many toys yourself, or buy them if you prefer.
Exercise before alone time
Like us, most animals will settle better after they have been exercised. Before leaving your pet alone, schedule some exercise or play activities to burn off their excess energy. Many cats find wand toys irresistible and may even enjoy trick training. You can mix up your dog’s exercise with activities such as tug of war, fetch or hide and seek.
Give your pet 15-20 minutes to settle down after their exercise before leaving them alone.
Make departures and arrivals boring
When you do leave, aim to make your departures and arrivals boring. It can be hard to resist a dramatic entrance when faced with an excited, cuddly cat or dog but keeping it low key helps to teach your animal that coming and going is nothing to get excited (or anxious) about.
Help your pet feel secure at home
There are many small changes you can make to help your pet feel more secure at home. All companion animal owners should aim to provide a safe place to retreat for their animal where they will not be disturbed. Explain to children in your household how to know when animals want to be left alone or are feeling fearful and encourage them to take notice and respect the animal’s need to be alone. For example, you can explain to children that the family pet behaves in a certain manner or retreats to a certain place when they are not comfortable.
Providing cat furniture, such as shelves, cat trees and hiding spots, will help your cats feel safe. This is particularly important in a multi-cat household as it provides extra space to avoid conflict. See this article for more information on enrichment for cats – How can I keep my cat safe and happy at home?
Soothing music (for example, classical music) or audiobooks may help to reduce barking and increase resting in dogs and may help to mask scary noises.
Synthetic pheromones can also be used to help to create a safe, relaxing space (e.g. “Adaptil®” for dogs and “Feliway®” for cats). These diffusers or sprays can be purchased from most pet stores or your local vet practice. Diffusers should be plugged into the room where the animal spends most of their time. To use sprays, simply lightly mist a towel or cloth and place this in their bed or over their crate. Animals vary greatly in their response to these, some respond very well and others do not seem to respond, so it depends on your individual animal.
By following the advice in this article, you will help most pets to adjust to the changes in routine. However, there will be some animals who find the transition more difficult and you may notice signs of stress as they adjust to their new routine.
Cats are particularly sensitive to changes in routine but it can be difficult to spot when cats are stressed. Look out for changes in activity levels (such as increased time spent sleeping), an increase in hiding, inappropriate toileting (e.g. peeing outside their litter box for cats which are litter trained), changes in appetite, scratching and urine spraying.
In dogs, common signs of distress or anxiety associated with being left alone can include toileting in the house (in an animal that was previously fully house trained), excessive howling, barking or whining when left alone, destruction (usually directed at doors and windows), and excessive drooling or panting.
Never punish your pet for any destructive behaviour or inappropriate toileting that may have happened when you are out of the home. These behaviours are anxiety based, so punishing your pet will only make them more anxious and the behaviour worse.
Look out for signs of stress and seek help from a reputable animal trainer or behaviourist if they persist. A qualified behaviourist can correctly diagnose the problem and will work with other veterinary professionals to rule out medical causes. While less common than those specialising in dogs, it is important to know that there are behaviourists who can help you to reduce your cat’s anxiety and stress.
Thank you to our colleagues at SPCA NZ for sharing their information on this topic for us to use as the basis for this article.