Life After Lockdown – Preparing Your Pet For Less Time TogetherSeptember 14, 2020
Lockdown has been an extraordinary experience. For some pets, having everyone home has been exhausting with constant noise, attention and exercise. For others, it was a dream come true. As the world wakes up and we resume our normal activities we will have to leave our pets more often.
Change is always challenging, this could be a stressful time for our pets. Different pet species may be affected in different ways. For example, rabbits are social creatures and would never choose to be alone.
Owners returning to work or school could leave them lonely. If you have a single rabbit it is wise to adopt another for companionship. It may take a little time to bond the pair, but rescue centres can advise you and may be able to supply another rabbit if they are incompatible. In lockdown all our small pets have had more attention, so build in time for affection, play and grooming around work and school.
Pet birds may struggle with more time alone – interactive toys, low ambient noise and tasty treats can help them adjust. It is good to introduce change gradually in all species as sudden changes may be distressing. So, build some solitude into their daily routine in readiness.
Cats usually love peace, although some will miss your presence. Watch cats closely for signs of stress. Stressed cats usually change their behaviour subtly, they may hide from you or become clingy, overgroom and toilet inappropriately. Provide safe places for your cat, usually a peaceful, high place where they can relax completely. A box on top of a wardrobe is ideal if they are very mobile. Call or visit the practice for advice if your cat is stressed. We may suggest environmental changes and using calming pheromones.
Dogs are social animals, who love to be part of a pack. They can feel unsafe and anxious when the rest of the pack seems to disappear. In lockdown we have spent all our time at home with them. Puppies, fostered or adopted dogs acquired in lockdown have only known this life. It is unwise to suddenly change their circumstances as they will become confused and distressed.
Behaviourists, vets and owners are preparing for a large influx of dogs suffering from a condition called separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is a spectrum of disease ranging from dogs who are restless and unsettled when left alone, to those with major behavioural problems such as barking, destructive behaviour and toileting inappropriately.
If a dog has separation anxiety they will be alert to any cues that you are leaving the house. Initially, they appear unsettled. You may see them pant as their breathing and heart rate increase. They may drool, pace and start to vocalise, whining, barking or howling. As their anxiety escalates they may try to escape and find you. This can mean chewed door frames, doors and carpets. Alternatively, they may destroy something covered in your scent, such as a shoe or piece of clothing. They will then lie in the remnants surrounded by a comforting smell.
Separation anxiety is a difficult condition to treat, so careful prevention is better. If your dog feels safe and knows that you will return, this will prevent it.
Some dogs follow you around the house, even into the bathroom, and constantly touch you. This can lead to future problems, so encourage them to sleep or rest in their bed sometimes. Initially, this can be in the same room as you, but progress to moving their bed into a different room for short periods. Ideally, this should be the room they will be left in when you leave the house. Increase time alone slowly. If your garden is secure and it is safe to do so, let them have time alone in the garden to explore independently.
Some dogs constantly demand attention, they need to learn to be content in the same room as you first.
Whenever you introduce changes, start with short intervals. A first attempt should be two minutes, then 5 minutes, then ten minutes, slowly increasing daily. This can be repeated during the day. If they become distressed, reduce the time.
Time alone needs to be enjoyable, so a comfortable environment with positive associations is important. Crate training can help. If the crate is a safe place with positive associations, they will stay there happily for short periods. Stair gates are excellent for introducing solitude as your dog can still see you.
Interactive toys, tasty treats or both together can be an effective distraction. Chewing is a calming activity and food provides a strong reward. Feeding a whole meal will make them more likely to defecate, but treats can be used. A snuffle ball, lick mat, treat releasing toys or a Kong stuffed with peanut butter or frozen wet food can all be useful. If you use peanut butter, make sure it is xylitol free as the artificial sweetener xylitol is toxic to dogs.
Leaving a piece of your clothing in their bed can provide a comforting scent. Soothing low ambient noise such a quiet TV, soothing music or talk radio can provide distraction and deaden the external noises. This can reduce barking, if a stressed dog is hypervigilant. Do not only use this when you are going out, though, or it can become a trigger.
We can provide pheromone treatments that mimic the comforting smells of puppyhood and help dogs to adapt to change with less stress.
Dogs are remarkably observant, they will pick up early cues that you are about to leave. Try to vary your leaving routine to reduce their emotional reaction. Once they are anxious it is harder for them to calm down. Leaving and returning need to become normal events so they remain calm. Do not make leaving a stressful event.
Routine helps dogs to accommodate change so walk them outside work hours. They will usually settle better if they have had a walk. If time is short or it is dark outside, you can use activities such as retrieving, scent work or agility to exercise their mind and body.
All these measures can prevent separation anxiety. If your dog is not ready to be left, consider a day care centre, dog boarder or walker. Sometimes a family member is free to dog sit. Ensure that your dog is used to the other people involved so they transition easily.
If you have more than one dog, separation anxiety is less common. However, time without you can still be challenging. When dogs become excited, they may fight. So, observe them before you leave them and reward calm behaviour.
If this isn’t working…
A full counter-conditioning programme may be needed; we strongly advise you to get in touch with a good clinical behaviourist to help manage these issues. We can recommend one if needed!
Pets manage gradual change best, so try and smooth the transition back to normal life. Never punish a dog for anxiety driven behaviour as it will get worse. Use positive rewards as much as possible and establish a routine as gently as possible. And if you have any questions or queries, please do get in touch with us!