Preventing Pet Problems During COVID-19 Isolation
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, many states and countries are containing spread through self-isolation. In my small town of Tuscola, Illinois, the schools closed March 17th, and classes are now being taught online. The University of Illinois switched to all online courses for the remainder of the spring semester. As a result, many more people are home working, learning, or just staying safe and well.
Pets are facing changes in the home routine, too. Some pets may be happier as they receive more walks and playtime. Other pets may show increased behavior problems despite the increased attention they receive. Human anxiety rubs off on our pets. This anxiety contagion (1) can cause our pets to become nervous or even aggressive.Preventing and relieving behavior problems is essential for our pets’ health and welfare.
Guidelines to reduce pet behavior problems
Anxiety Contagion – Human behaviors such as frowning, pacing, or talking with a strained voice reflect anxiety. (2) Our pets read these behaviors as signs that danger is near. As a result, our pets may turn away or duck when we try to pet them. They may bark, swat, or lunge at us when we raise our voices, cry, or appear tense. You may not be aware of your anxious behavior, but your pet is. Understanding the body language of anxiety in pets is essential. Start by downloading the body language charts for dogs and cats here (LINK: https://store.lowstresshandling.com/product-category/downloadable-posters-and-flyers/) to help you recognize brewing anxiety in your pet. When you see signs of stress in your pet, ask yourself, “What am I doing now?” Are you pacing as you talk on the phone? Have you been raising your voice at your kids or partner more often? These behaviors can create tension in your pet. Leaving your pet alone when you are anxious is the best way to decrease their tension. This can be difficult, as petting fur helps many people calm down. Stop petting your pet, take a breath, and witness their relaxation. You are relaxed, and your pet sees this. Now your pet will come back to you for petting. When your pet is avoiding you, calm yourself down first. If your pet has had fear problems in the past and they are getting worse, seek professional help.
Housemate- or Owner-Directed Aggression – Aggression is defined as behavior that keeps a perceived threat away. When your dog or cat sees a housemate go near their food bowl, they may feel competitive for that resource. Pets growling at, staring at, swatting at, and jumping on each other are signs of aggression. When more people are sitting on the couch than usual, our pets might feel competitive about losing their quiet space and become aggressive. Punishers may stop the aggression signs, but they do not reduce the tension. In fact, punishers often increase tension and can cause aggression to erupt again. When punishers are used, the animal does not get a break from this chronic cycle of conflict. Learn to read the signs of aggression in dogs and cats here. resource page here. If your pet is displaying signs of aggression, contact your veterinarian immediately. There are multiple causes of aggression, including medical problems. Your veterinarian can work with a behaviorist to give you the best help.
Barking and Jumping at Doors and Windows – Lockdowns lead to more walks, bike rides, and outside activity. Some dogs bark, run, and jump at windows in response to these stimuli. Repeated agitation increases adrenaline, which worsens aggression and anxiety problems. Fights with housemates can erupt, causing injury. A quick solution is to block the dog’s view to the outside by taping copy paper to the windows. A dragline leash is best used to safely pull dogs away from windows. There is no quick solution for reactivity in dogs, but a good starting point is to redirect with food and tether the dog safely. Watch my “barking like crazy” video to learn how to decrease this agitation.
Separation Anxiety – Both dogs and cats can experience anxiety when separated from people, animals, or places they know. Separation anxiety signs tend to decrease when everyone stays home. When everyone goes back to their normal schedules, there is an increased risk of stress in their pets. Separation anxiety in dogs can lead to severe home damage, as well as self-injury. Cats do not show escape behaviors leading to injury or property destruction. (3) Common signs of separation anxiety in cats include house soiling, over-grooming, and intense vocalization. You can prevent separation anxiety through play to increase your pet’s independence. Independence is built naturally through play based on rewards when your pet is alone. An animal who can function alone is happy.
For dogs, the “peek-a-boo” game is fun and quickly reduces frustration around closed doors and separation in the home. To play the game, stop feeding your dog out of a bowl. Use mealtime as gametime. If you have a multi-dog household, remove the other dogs from the area. You want each dog to learn for themselves that they will be okay when you “disappear.” Grab a handful of your dog’s food nuggets and stand near an exit door, facing your dog. Toss a few nuggets away from you, and as your dog starts to eat, turn around and step toward the door. Count to two seconds, then face your dog. Repeat this until your dog is happy and looks for the food, not you. Continue the game, stepping out the door for a few seconds, then coming back in. Stay silent when you return, and continue tossing food ahead of you. When you come in the door, wait until you are at least three feet away from the door before greeting your dog. The goal is to teach your dog to enjoy your departure and return. Play this game with all of your dogs to help them be happy and independent.
Cats need to play and exercise every day. “Kill the food” is a game that builds independence and provides an outlet for natural hunting behaviors. Cats need to be hungry to help encourage them to play this game at first. If your cat is free fed, remove the food bowls and hide small saucers with a few tablespoons of food on each one throughout the home. To play the game, take a handful of your cat’s dry food and walk near an exit door. Bounce one nugget on the floor in front of your cat. Wait until your cat paws or moves to the food and eats it, then toss another nugget. Kill the food works best on hard flooring as the sound of the food hitting the floor attracts the cat. Once your hungry cat gets the hang of this game, move toward the exit door as your cat scampers after the food you bounced. Just like the peek-a-boo game, continue tossing the food as you step out the door for a few seconds and return. When you return, throw more food for your cat to chase. When your cat has finished eating the food you tossed, greet your cat. Your goal is to have your cat more interested in “killing the food” than you leaving. This game is also helpful to redirect cats who chase or pounce on each other. Watch my video here Kill your food video
There are many handouts, videos, and webinars for you to help your pets have the best behavior possible. Check out my resources here. (LINK: https://www.drsallyjfoote.com/pet-owner/)
Sally J. Foote, DVM, CABC-IAABC, LSHC-S
- Zoffness R., Anxiety Contagion: Tips for Relief. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/pain-explained/202003/anxiety-contagion-tips-relief, accessed March 29, 2020.
- The Body Language of Anxiety. Exploring Your Mind. https://exploringyourmind.com/body-language-anxiety/, accessed March 20, 2020.
- Separation Anxiety. The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine Indoor Pet Initiative. https://indoorpet.osu.edu/cats/problemsolving/separation-anxiety, accessed March 29, 2020.