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Advice & welfare

Preparing your pets for life after lockdown

For many of our companion animals, having us at home is a dream come true - but what happens when we go back to work?

For many of our companion animals, having us at home during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a dream come true but what happens when we go back to work? People may suddenly be spending less time at home and big changes to their daily routine can be confusing and stressful for our pets. Fortunately, there are lots of steps we can take to help our furry friends adjust to this change. In this article we recommend some tips to help your companion animals with this transition.

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.

If you are working from home, try to start and finish work at the same time each day and schedule breaks into your day. These breaks will allow you to connect with your pet. Scheduling activities into predictable time slots will also help your pet settle when you need to get some work done!

Give them some alone time

Many family dogs have been on more walks than ever before which is wonderful, however it is also important to make sure our companion animals get some alone time. We suggest taking some walks without the dog, leaving them at home alone. 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.

You can also help your animals adjust to enjoying time on their own by putting them in a separate room with something fun to do for a little while each day. Start small and gradually increase how long you are away (e.g. at first leave them alone for only 5 or 10 minutes). This is particularly important if you have a foster animal who may not have been left home alone before.

Help them settle at home alone

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, make a ‘pupsicle’, give them a safe toy to cuddle or chew. Read more about food enrichment for dogs here.

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 even enjoy trick training! Mix up your dog’s exercise with activities such as tug of war, fetch or hide and seek.

Give them 15-20 minutes to settle down after their exercise before leaving. 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.

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 won’t be disturbed. Encourage children in your household to notice when animals want to be left alone or are feeling fearful. The child may notice 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. Read more about how to create an enriching home environment for your cat here.

Soothing music (think classical not heavy metal!) or audiobooks have been found to reduce barking and increase lying time in dogs and may help to mask scary noises. Synthetic pheromones can also be used to help to create a safe, relaxing space (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 its time. To use sprays, simply lightly mist a towel or cloth and place this in their bed or over their crate.

Troubleshooting

If you follow the steps outlined in this article, most pets will take these changes in their stride. However, there will be some animals which 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 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.

It can be disheartening to come home to find your house a mess but never punish your pet for destruction or inappropriate toileting that you discover when you get home. Because these behaviours are anxiety based, punishing your pet will only make them more anxious and the behaviour worse.

Look out for these 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.

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