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How to support your pets during coronavirus confinement

As our everyday routines are broken, reshaped or even turned upside down due to the coronavirus pandemic, it can be easy to forget that our pets are going through similar levels of upheaval.

Some owners might put their dog’s extra whining and attention seeking down to them being around more, but other tell-tale signs of a pet’s anxiety and stress are often missed.

In a first-of-its-kind international study exploring the impact of the coronavirus on pets and owners, veterinary behaviourists Dr Jon Bowen from the Royal Veterinary College (London) and Dr Jaume Fatjó from the Affinity Foundation for Animals and Health, Autonomous University of Barcelona - in collaboration with pet tech company Sure Petcare – surveyed thousands of households in the UK, Spain and Italy.

The study found that while owners were getting much-needed support from their pets during the confinement, more than a third (37%) of dogs were coping less well, showing increased signs of stress, nervousness, irritability, frustration or attention-seeking. Furthermore, dogs were going on less walks than usual adding to their frustrations.

Sure Petcare spoke to Dr Bowen to find out more about the most common issues being reported, the warning signs to look out for and what owners can be doing to support their pets during this unprecedented time.

Common, reported problems

The most common problems reported in the survey and anecdotally over the past weeks of confinement are:

Excessive vocalisation: Some owners are reporting that their dogs are barking, howling and whining more.

Dr Bowen explained: “One reason for this is that dogs are reacting more to things that are going on outside the home. One possible reason is that there is less general noise outside so their attention is drawn more to sudden sounds or noise.  Another is that dogs are perhaps trying to get a reaction from their owners because they want more attention.

“We also found that dogs were less likely to be vocal if they went on more walks each day - although it wasn’t related to the length of the walks. This suggests that dogs cope better if they can go on several short walks a day to help negate the potential build-up of stress or tension.”

Noise fear:  Some dogs are showing increased sensitivity to noise.

Dr Bowen said: “I expected noise fear to decrease but in fact it seems to be increasing.  We are hearing of people having problems with their dogs during the Thursday night NHS celebrations, for example, with people clapping, banging pots and pans and letting off fireworks. The noise will seem unusually loud to dogs because there’s so little background noise.  These are unfamiliar sounds for our pets and it’s frightening for some of them. 

“My advice is that if your dog or cat is affected, stay indoors with the windows closed and the TV tuned to a channel that doesn’t broadcast the NHS celebration.”

Aggression: Some dogs are showing increased aggression to other dogs in the street.

Dr Bowen said: “It seems that some dogs are barking more at each other, but we think this is mostly out of frustration because they are not able to be off-leash to interact and play with other dogs. Some owners may confuse this with aggression or anger but it’s simply a way of dogs expressing their dissatisfaction.

“There is a simple way to reduce frustration in these situations.  Take a bum-bag of treats on your walk. Every time you see another dog, call your dog’s name and give him/her some treats until the other dog has gone past.”

What can pet owners do to help?

Common signs of stress in dogs include yawning, lip-licking, agitation, restlessness, panting, avoidance and irritability. In cats the signs are more subtle - they may hide, avoid contact, become skittish or less active.

Dr Bowen said: “People need to understand what the common signs of stress are in a pet.  Many people do not realise that yawning, panting and aggressive behaviour are signs of stress in dogs, for example.”

If you are concerned that your pet seems more demanding, nervous or agitated than normal, Dr Bowen has some advice:

1. Establish a routine 

 “A lack of structure can be difficult for a dog to cope with.  Plan a daily routine for yourself, and deliberately set aside time within that routine for your pet. For example, take a break from your work every hour, and have some fun with your dog,” Dr Bowen said. “This might be just 10-minutes of play time or a short walk around the block. It’s good for both the dog and the owner to help them to de-stress and clear their heads.”

2. Train your dog

“We saw in our study that some people are getting irritated when their dogs are getting demanding, attention seeking or when they are misbehaving, especially when owners are trying to balance work, kids and home life.  Dogs are closely bonded to us so they feel our tension and negative energy and that can make them feel stressed,” Dr Bowen said. “If this is happening, train you dog to go to its bed to settle or create a quiet space for your dog to go and relax.

3. Find a happy, quiet place for your dog.

“For dogs that are sensitive to noise or busy households where there are children running around and shouting, it’s a good idea for your dog to have somewhere to go away from the noise,” said Dr Bowen. “This could be a quiet spot in the house or taking them outdoors for a short walk.

4. Place less emotional burden on your pet.

 “Our research suggests that the increased emotional closeness people have with their pets during the confinement may become a burden that some pets find hard to carry. For example, we found that dogs with existing behaviour problems were more likely to get worse if their owner was more emotionally dependent on them,” said Dr Bowen. “Like children, pets need their owners to be a source of emotional stability, and we think some pets find it hard to cope when the people around them become needier, more attentive and more demanding of physical contact. There is no reason why people and pets cannot provide support for each other, but it’s all about finding a good balance.”

How can pet owners keep their pets entertained and active during this time?

Dr Bowen said: “I’m sure that most dogs would love to be going on long walks, visiting the park, and playing with their friends, but until that is possible we have to find a compromise that protects people and preserves our pets’ quality of life. The evidence we have is that dogs cope best when they have lots of short, regular bursts of activity throughout the day. During this unusual time when we have to make compromises, several short walks, play sessions or food finding games in the garden each day are better than one long walk. 

“Our study indicates that in the UK dogs are going on a quarter fewer walks, and the walks they go on are also about a quarter shorter. But that's just the visible effect of the COVID restrictions that owners are aware of.   Dogs are not running around off the leash and they aren’t playing with other dogs, so the actual reduction in activity is much greater.  Without having some way to monitor activity levels, owners are unable to accurately judge the right amount of food to give their dog.  

“There are brilliant products out there that can support pets during this time.  Animo, for example, is a behaviour and activity monitor that can help you keep track of the amount of exercise and activity your pet is getting.

“People use activity trackers to monitor and prompt them to take exercise or cut down on their calorie intake, and products like Animo can do the same for dogs.

“Animo can also pick up on behavioural changes in our pets over time. Excessive shaking or scratching, for example, could be a sign of ill health or simply that your pet has an allergy.  A phone call to the vet can confirm this.”

In conclusion

In these uncertain times, Dr Bowen believes it is essential that owners consider the emotional and physical wellbeing of their pets more than ever.

Giving dogs regular short walks, and play sessions in the house or garden are ways to establish routine and combat the boredom and frustration that both pets and owner face

Dr Bowen encourages owners to be mindful about placing too much emotional burden on their pet and to remain calm and not get angry with them.  Finding a quiet spot for them go to without being disturbed will benefit the pet and ultimately, the owner.

For puppies in particular, as the lockdown gradually relaxes, owners should allow more social interaction with dogs and people, but do this gradually so pups are not overwhelmed.   

Dr Bowen added: “Dogs with existing behaviour problems or whose quality of life has been more impacted by the restrictions are less likely to cope with the confinement. 

“There are many reasons why a pet might be struggling during this time – some may find it difficult to adjust to the lack of routine, others may find it hard to understand that although their owner is there, they are constantly busy working from home. Many dogs will pick up on their owner’s stress, especially if owners are seeking more comfort from them.

“Fast forward a month or two and there is a real risk that the stress signs we are seeing now will lead to more serious problem behaviour in the future, especially as people’s anxiety and frustration levels increase.

“The key is to put in some preventative measures now to help them adjust as much as possible when life gets back to ‘normal’.”

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