With lockdown restrictions continuing to ease, you may be one of the many pet parents preparing to return to work and leaving your four-legged friend home alone for the first time in months.
We’ve teamed up with pet behaviourist expert Rosie Barclay, who has shared her advice on how to help ease pets (and pet parents!) out of lockdown and reduce separation anxiety.
“Before lockdown our pets were used to a fairly normal daily routine. Then over a matter of days this all changed and our pets had to adapt to many of us being around for a lot longer. Now it’s changing all over again as many of us return back to work and school.
And it’s not just the daily routines that have changed, their pet parents and human siblings may also have changed as well. It is not an easy time for us humans as we experience an array of emotions that our pets may sense from our change in behaviour; our worried looks and the stress chemistry we produce. We may even look different with our longer hair and mask covered faces.
So how might this change affect our pets and what can we do to help them cope better?
Our pets share similar neurobiology to us and experience emotions such fear, frustration, anger, love, happiness and anticipation. Continual negative emotional states such as fear, frustration and anger are likely to cause a stress response which may have consequences for the wellbeing of our pets.
So, what can we look out for that might suggest our pets are experiencing a degree of stress? The most obvious sign is a change in their behaviour. As a pet parent you will know if your cat or dog is behaving differently so follow your instincts. For instance, are they becoming ‘clingy’ and following you around or trying to sit and cuddle up more? Are they less active (sitting around quietly looking sad) or more active (pacing around in an agitated manner and becoming more vocal)? Are they grooming themselves more than normal? Have they stopped eating or eating more? Do they try and block you from going out by pulling at your clothing or standing in your way? Are they less tolerant of being stroked and seem angrier? If so, how can we help them cope better with this ‘new’ normal way of life?
Well we can gradually begin to get them used to what life will be like from now on.
It’s not going to help your pet if all of a sudden you disappear to go back to full time work or school after living together 24/7 over the past few months. So, begin to leave them (shut a door or go out of the house) for a few seconds at a time 2-3 times daily leaving them with something fun to do. Make this part of your daily routine and if your pet is happily finding food then over the next few days gradually increase the amount of time you leave them.
If your dog is used to going for daily walks with a dog walker or a cat is used to someone popping in to feed them at lunchtimes then reinstate this even if you are still at home.
Encourage activity that doesn’t involve you all the time. Hiding food around the house and garden is a great way to keep your pet happy. You can simply place a few pieces of your pet’s own allotted amount of food around on the floor and also in interactive puzzle toys, licky and snuffle mats for them to find. You will be surprised how enticing those pieces of dried food left in the bottom of the food bowl are if you start playing with them. You can also add a few tasty treats that will cause great joy for your pet when found. Who doesn’t love a good game of hide and seek? And just as important, allow them to rest undisturbed. If they tend to sleep with one eye open to make sure you are safe then allow them somewhere, they can fully rest off duty.
Keep calm and carry on the same:
Your pets are likely to pick up on how you are feeling. They may see you are acting differently and even smell the chemical change in your scent profile but they won’t have a clue as to why. This may lead to them feeling distressed. In other words, they become worried about this change in your behaviour and scent. So, try and act in the same way as you did before the lockdown when around your pet. When you need to let off some emotional steam, give your pet something nice to do and move away to another room. Of course, this is easier said than done.
As well as masking your emotions around your pets there is also something very different happening in the outside world. The ‘new’ normal means that humans may be wearing a mask that covers part of their face. Pets are great at learning to read our intentions by looking at human expressions. If our faces are covered this is going to be more difficult for our pets to do and some may just react negatively just in case. So, we can help our pets by helping them to associate people wearing masks with positive experiences instead. Get your dog and cat used to people wearing masks by wearing one in the house and garden whilst you are playing fun games using treats and toys. Begin by just having it in your hand and allowing your pet to sniff at it and then offer a treat or a game. Then begin by holding it up to your face and taking it away and offering a treat. Then once they are used to that pop it on for just for a few seconds at a time and play some fun games. You can then leave it on for a little longer and then a little longer still and ask other members of your family to do the same. And then, if you have a dog, go for a quiet walk at first wearing it and gradually over time begin to meet more and more people. Wear different types of masks and make it fun. You can also help other companion animals become used to masks such as rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs and horses.
If your pet is still finding it hard to cope with the ‘new’ normal then ask advice from your vet who will check for any underlying medical causes and may refer you to a suitably qualified clinical animal behaviourist."
Rosie is a clinical companion animal behaviourist working in the Channel Islands via veterinary referral helping to address pet behaviour issues.
She has a BSc (Hons) in Zoology and an MPhil in Animal Behaviour and Welfare from Nottingham University. A contributing author in “The APBC Book of Companion Animal Behaviour”, Rosie has published several academic papers, given talks and lectures, written numerous magazine and newspaper articles, appeared on national as well as local radio and local and national TV.
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