SPCA New Zealand

SPCA encourages awareness of animal anxiety as owners’ head back to work

14 May 2020
SPCA encourages awareness of animal anxiety as  owners’ head back to work

Thousands of companion animals are set to face days alone as families’ head back to work and school over the next few weeks with the introduction of Alert Level 2.

Never before have so many people been quarantined at home in New Zealand with their feline and canine companions over such a long period of time. With such a high percentage of Kiwis owning pets, SPCA says owners need to mindful that animals could find it stressful once the human exodus out of the house becomes a reality.

SPCA Scientific Officer Dr Alison Vaughan says that while many pets are remarkably resilient and will soon adjust to their new routines, some could struggle after being at home around the clock with their owners during lockdown.

“While we may be happy to return to life outside our bubbles, it’s important not to underestimate the anxiety the animals could experience if they are suddenly on their own all day,” she said.

“As we move down to Level 2, we suggest looking out for sudden changes in behaviour which may indicate stress; excessive grooming, peeing where they’re not supposed to, losing their appetite or aggressive or standoffish behaviour.”

“Over the next few days and weeks, we recommend gradually training your pets to be more independent,” she said. “Start by making short departures of just a few minutes and then returning calmly and build up to longer departures.”

Dr Vaughan advises that it’s best to exercise pets (if possible) before leaving them on their own – they are more likely to settle when they are not so full of energy. Give them 15-20 minutes to settle down after their exercise before leaving. When they are left at home, aim to make the departures and arrivals boring.

To keep them busy while absent, provide pets with a treat dispensing toy filled with high value treats, or hide treats around the house for the cat or dog to find whenever they’re left alone. This works even for short periods or within an owners’ sight, but out of reach. By giving them alone time, they will be able to learn that there is nothing to worry about when we go away – and help get them used to spending time apart.

“One of the most important things we can do is to keep a regular routine, and stick to it. This means walks, mealtime, playtime, and also alone time, occur at the same time every day. Schedule regular exercise, quiet time and fun activities to occupy their minds and keep them entertained,” Dr Vaughan says.

Some animals may find the transition more difficult and signs of stress may appear. In dogs, common signs of distress or anxiety associated with being left alone include excessive barking or whining and destruction when left alone. In cats, these signs can be subtler but there may be an increase in hiding, sleeping, or spraying. Families need to understand that these things are not done by pets to annoy anyone, rather, they are expressing anxiety and a need for help.

Pets with separation anxiety may learn the routine that leads up to people leaving the house like putting on shoes and picking up keys. So to reduce the escalation of anxiety, it’s advised to try and make these ‘unreliable indicators’ of leaving. For example family members can put on shoes, pick up keys and then take them off and sit down on the couch. This can reduce the escalation of anxiety which usually accompanies leading up to leaving the house.

If there are persist signs of stress, or if a pet is already showing signs of being clingy, SPCA recommends working with a reputable trainer or behaviourist to help work through these issues. It’s important to note that while many behaviourists work with dogs, there are also behaviourists who specialise in cats and other animals.

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