Many of our companion animals are benefiting from having their people at home all of the time during the COVID-19 pandemic. 'Lockdown' restrictions are easing, it's time to leave home, and this change may be stressful and confusing.
Fortunately, there are lots of steps we can take to help our pets adjust to the new normal.
KEEP A REGULAR ROUTINE
The current situation has rapidly evolved and required all of us to make dramatic changes. 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.
TEACH THEM TO FEEL SECURE ALONE
It's important to teach your pet to feel secure and contented when they're alone. A good way to get your pet used to spending some time happily alone again is to set them up on their own in a separate room which is safe and comfortable, with something delicious to eat and something fun to do. If they're not used to being left alone, start doing this for short periods and gradually increase the length of time you're away.
If you have a dog, take some walks without them, leaving them at home alone (in a safe space with things to do). If you have more than one dog, it may also be a good idea to occasionally walk them separately so they're 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), 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.
EXERCISE BEFORE ALONE TIME
Like us, most animals will settle better after they've 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.
BORING DEPARTURES AND ARRIVALS
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 PETS FEEL SECURE AT HOME
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.
Soothing music or the radio 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; these diffusers or sprays can be purchased from most pet stores. Diffusers should be plugged in where the animal spends most of their time.
Some animals will find the transition more difficult than others.
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, an increase in hiding, inappropriate toileting, changes in appetite, scratching and urine spraying.
In dogs, common signs of distress or anxiety include toileting in the house, excessive barking or whining when left alone, destruction, and excessive panting.
Never punish your pet. 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.