Right now, we’re all adjusting to a new ‘normal’ under the restrictions of COVID-19. But animal owners need to think ahead and consider what will happen after COVID-19 and prepare their pets as much as possible for a return to a normal routine.
Due to the COVID-19 virus many people are spending significantly more time at home, working from home or in self-isolation. For many of us, animals have helped us to cope with the situation both in terms of providing company and exercise, while the increased time with their owners has also benefited many pets. However, things won’t be like this forever and normal routines will return, which for some pets means spending some time alone. Pet owners need to make sure that their animals are able to cope when they are on their own and life returns to normal.
Dogs will be particularly affected
Time spent in close contact with pets can lead to a close bond between pets and their owners, especially between dogs and their owners. However, life could become difficult when the situation changes and the dog is forced to spend time without the company or attention of its human family, even if only for a few hours. This can especially affect animals who are insecure and fearful, perhaps through losing their home previously or having suffered the loss of a previous owner, separation can bring on anxiety and lead to behavioural issues. For example, separation anxiety can lead to destructive behaviour with pets causing damage to the home or urinating in the home when the owner is absent, or continually bark until their owner returns home. Some dogs also suffer from depression or hyper salivation as a result of being left on their own.
Cats appear to cope more easily with this situation and generally do not show the same behavioural problems. Although many cats like the attention and closeness of their owners, most cats are very independent and structure their day themselves. Getting cats used to being alone again should therefore be easier than with dogs. But even cats will benefit from a few practice sessions of returning to a more solitary life.
Counteracting pets’ fears
Animals who tend to be fearful due to their past experiences may relish this time of increased attention from their owners and may gain a new feeling of security. While this is good, the key is to ensure that this feeling of security lasts beyond this immediate period into the time when your pet needs to be at home alone again.
As a pet owner you can do a lot to teach your pet how to cope with and enjoy being alone, learning to entertain themselves and not pine for you.
- Gradual training: As with training puppies, you can get an adult dog used to being alone again by first leaving the house for just a few minutes, extending it to 15 minutes, then half an hour etc, and slowly increasing this time. Gradually your pet will learn to trust that you will return home again.
- Allow breaks: In between the games you are playing with your pet, ensure you have decent breaks. This downtime is necessary so that your pet gets enough rest and sleep.
- Respect your pet’s rest: When your pet retreats to their sleeping place, this rest should be respected, and your pet should be allowed to rest. Make sure any children understand this too.
- Design ‘self-entertainment’ activities: For example, design a feeding game in which your pet’s treat is given in the form of food balls or by using a Kong or something similar. Your pet will have to occupy themselves for a long time to get the food, distracting them while separated from you, and teaching them to entertain themselves.
- Ignore your pet sometimes: It is healthy to ignore your pet sometimes, especially when they are demanding too much attention.
- Dressing and undressing cues: Animals are clever at associating typical exit rituals leading up to their owners leaving the house. It’s a good idea to get them used to these by putting on shoes, a jacket and other outfits several times a day without leaving your home.
- Prepare for the impact on your pets: If special circumstances like the COVID-19 crisis or even a broken leg or an illness make it necessary for you to stay at home more than usual, you should absolutely use the time to dedicate extra attention to your pet. However, for their ongoing wellbeing, the attention must be well measured so that it does not result in future problems for your pet such as separation anxiety. Time together can be enjoyed by everyone with careful consideration.