As we ended the nightmare year of 2020 and entered 2021 the question on everyone’s mind has to be : what will the new, new normal bring?
As pet owners, we have had to make so many quickfire changes to our animals’ lives since the lockdown in March, where we all came home and stayed for three months (“yippee,” said the social dogs and parrots, “tiresome,” said the sleepy cats!).
“Don’t go out!” meant shorter or no walks. “Go out!” meant longer walks, and getting used to those scary face coverings that mask our expressions and make the simplest “good boy” into a pantomime of clappy hands and treat confetti (“not a bad idea,” say our dogs!)
All these changes in such a short space of time goes to show how incredibly tolerant and flexible our pets can be, but all these changes have, and will, continue to make a big impact on our pets. For the animals who have had their owners home all day, the impact of our return to work and normal routine could bring about a time of uncertainty and stress. An increase in separation anxiety in our pets is the biggest prediction from Welfare Organisations and behavioural experts in the field.
In this article we aim to give you the tools and resources to avoid stress, prevent problems, and help your pet to settle back into the new normal routine whatever that might be.
So how will our dogs cope when we return to work?
For some of us, our home routine means working long hours in front of the computer with our faithful dogs snoozing at our feet. Or you could have a dog who is desperate to grab your attention at any given moment because having Mum/Dad on tap is the best Christmas gift a dog could ask for. Either way our main goal is to use this inactive time to teach our dogs that being alone is a pretty cool and exciting thing to do. If you were not there where would your dog spend its day? Would s/he be in the office or would s/he be lounging in the living room dreaming of catching rabbits? Just because we are there does not mean that they need to be with us all the time, or that we need to disrupt their routine.
Providing some tasty options and exciting puzzles in the living room, or designated room of your choice, and giving your dog periods of time to settle in can turn aloneness into an exciting adventure of which they want to be a part.
The real key is to start to behave as if you were back at work
Structure your walk times around your normal work hours. And if you use a dog walker or day care service continue to do so to make less of a stressful transition when you return to work.
Develop a routine that suits your long term needs and stick with it!
Try to pop out as and when you can, even if its to go and buy a coffee rather than make one at home (because owners deserve treats too!) Regular short trips away can help our dogs to begin to desensitise to being left again. And if your dog had a strong regular routine and was not stressed at being left he is likely to fall back into this easier with regular exposure. (If you feel your dog may be distressed then refer to the separation anxiety section before embarking on any training at home.)
When thinking Dog, think Scent!
Remember that dogs are not only very susceptible to visual cues, but also olfactory (scent cues). Your dog will not be fooled by your slacks and t shirt, so dig out your work shoes and coat and spray on a bit of your regular scent when you go out. This will ensure an Oscar award-winning ‘going to work role’ that your dog will buy into.
Let’s teach our dogs that being alone is a pretty cool and exciting thing to do!
There are so many fantastic toys and resources for enriching our dog’s time at home, making alone time fun. You can ask at your local pet shop for what the best toys are for getting your dog to engage in fun puzzle time and to release happy endorphins.
The following games are our favourite for encouraging confident, content dogs and happy owners
Scent is such an important part of our dog’s world; it is how they gain information and also a great way to access feel good endorphins via the seeking system (the body’s internal reward system). Sniffari is a game of hide and seek for your dogs nose, where you can scatter the dog’s food allowance around a room, or use a snuffle mat or rolled up towel with treats folded inside.
2 The Rewarding Place
The rewarding place is all about positive associations. If your dog loves to snuggle near to you it is likely he will seek out the thing that holds your strongest scent to relax on; this is usually the sofa or bed. However, when we are present in the home, the scent will be stronger and feel nicer where you are.
Take an old coat or piece of clothing such as a t shirt. You need to wear it for a period of time before you start the game. Lay it in the room you are in where the dog likes to settle. Place a long lasting chew, like a Yaks Milk chew, on top and encourage your dog to come and find it. Some dogs will settle on the rewarding place straight away to chew their new found prize, but some will take the chew and move away. Either way, with repetition each day, the dog will start to make the association with relaxing chew time.
Once your dog is relaxed, practise leaving the room for short periods of time. See if they return to the relaxing place for comfort with their chew.
Put the relaxing place in the room you wish your dog to settle in and start by staying in the room. Make sure to bring a book to read : we want the dog to be learning to relax on their own rather than interact with you. Once the dog is settled, repeat, leaving for short periods, and increase once the dog becomes more settled.
Remember to move at your dog’s pace. If they become worried about you leaving, go back a step and make sure they are happy.
What to do if you are worried your dog may be developing separation issues
We all worry about how the stress of us leaving the home and going back to work will affect our dog, but had you ever considered that our stress might contribute to our dog’s feelings, too? A 2019 study showed that dogs can mirror our stress. The study showed that high anxiety and stress levels in owners matched raised levels in their dogs. So let’s take a moment to relax, prepare, and set our dogs up to be successful, because after all : prevention and early indication can make all the difference.
Recognising the signs of anxiety quickly can make for early intervention!
Minor signs of separation distress
- Barking, or whining when left
- Seeming very quiet and sad, or very over the top : jumping, mouthing, helicopter tail when you return
- Following you everywhere, and unhappy if they are behind a closed door
For the above, keep calm and carry on with slow introductions to the games and methods we have suggested in this article. Slowly let them adapt to new routines with short times alone with toys and Sniffari as much as you can.
Pheromones are a great way to introduce those feelings of calm around the home. A recommended pheromone product for dogs would be Adaptil. It contains ‘dog appeasing pheromones (DAP)’, which are naturally released by female dogs to provide comfort and security for her puppies.
DAP have been clinically proven to reduce signs of separation related problems, including:
- Reduction in destructive behaviours
- Reduction in house soiling
- Reduction in barking
For separation anxiety, the Adaptil diffuser can be plugged in approximately 2-3 days before you go back to work.
It is best to plug the diffuser into a room the dog uses a lot and to use it for at least a month.
Severe signs of distress or separation anxiety in dogs when left (if seen, seek advice from the JSPCA):
- Lack of appetite, or not able to eat unless owner is present
- Inappropriate elimination : defecating or urinating in areas that are abnormal to the animal, especially when separated from the owner or after a period of being left. Also changes in faeces, such as loose stools or diarrhoea.
- Grooming much more than usual, chewing at legs nails or tail
- Vocalising more than usual, becoming sensitive to noise or other stimulus more jumpy or easily startled
- Following the owners around the home unable to sleep or will wake as soon as owner moves out of eyeshot
- Distressed when doors shut and they cannot access owner
- Destructive behaviour when left or after owner returns
If you see any signs that concern you about your dog’s behaviour, and believe them to be suffering stress or anxiety around being left, you can reach out to us at the JSPCA for help and advice. We can give you information about behaviourists and trainers who can work with you and your dog through any issues they might have, using ethical and effective methods to help alleviate anxiety issues. It is also highly recommended that animals receive a veterinary check to make sure there are no underlying health issues contributing to their behaviour.
What about our feline friends?
In all this chaos it is easy to forget about the impact the pandemic is having on our feline friends. Cats have such complex and fascinating lives, yet when it comes to behaviour there is often very little information available, and even the most knowledgeable owners can miss the signs that our furry friends are unhappy or suffering stress.
Cats are incredibly routine creatures. In fact, if we were to give them human characteristics they would be the most compulsive routine follower you would ever meet. Our cats like to have everything just so and if you so much as relocate a bowl or furnishing they are particular to it can cause them great distress. Taking this into account, the Pandemic with its lockdowns and home schooling must have been an incredibly stressful time for our cats, with more noise and movement than they are accustomed to and disturbed nap time. But for some cats, life with owners home has been a real treat. You only have to look at the array of Zoom call cat-related videos online to see that it has been our feline friends who have had the most mischief and fun while we have been working from home.
So what happens now when the house goes quiet again? Will your cat be waving you out the door? Or will they be feeling lonely and sad to see us go?
The following advice will help you to make your home the most enticing place for your cat to enjoy its alone time when you return to work.
Make your home cat friendly and give them outlets for natural behaviour
You may have noticed that since being at home your cat is now spending more of their time inside than out. This is understandable, as being close to us makes them feel comforted and happy. On the flip side, you might be noticing that your cat is spending more time hiding away after all the bustle and drama of home schooling and extended school holidays. Either way, making your home cat friendly is a great way of giving them confidence and allowing them outlets to be, well, a little ‘more cat’!
- Cats like to have peace and quiet when they are eating or ‘using the facilities’! Make sure you have litter trays in more than one room so they have choice to move away from any noise.
- Put cat food up high in a quiet place. Water can be in the same room but try to separate them. Cats can get very upset if their food and water are too close together.
- Make sure they have plenty of things to climb, scratch, and chase. Giving an outlet for natural behaviour releases those happy endorphins.
- Try to go out as normal. Just like with our dogs, the more we behave as we would normally, the easier it is for them to settle. Take short trips out and monitor your cat to make sure they are not stressed. You can get a cat-cam to watch them on your phone.
- Let them sleep! Cats need rest, and disturbed sleep can be very stressful.
Signs of stress in cats :
- Large bald patches or sores on the coat caused by over grooming
- Not going to the toilet as often (both faeces and urine), frequent squatting, painful urination, blood in urine
- Change in toileting behaviour e.g. behind sofa, on the bed
- Spraying around the house
- Scratching furniture excessively
- Excessive vocalisation
- Aggressive behaviour towards family members or other pets
- Lack of appetite
- Hiding e.g. under bed or on top of wardrobe
- Very jumpy at sudden sound/movement
- Withdrawal from interacting with family members and unresponsive to things going on around them.
- Increased dependency on family members, wanting to constantly interact
- General behaviour changes including sitting differently, facial expression changes or exhibiting strange behaviours.
Along with the other recommendations highlighted in this article, you can use pheromone and calming products alongside them. Pheromones are a type of chemical communication between members of a species. Certain pheromones, called calming or appeasing pheromones, can sometimes help relieve stressed pets.
Feliway is a great example of an easy pheromone tool to use around the house to help support your cat.
You may have heard of Feliway being recommended during particularly stressful events, such as during firework displays, but it is also a great tool for day-to-day use. Feliway plug in diffusers are one of the easiest ways to help reduce stress, and each cartridge lasts for 30 days.
It may be a good idea to place a diffuser in more than one room to provide stress relieving support throughout the house, whilst your cat can reacclimatise to a quieter house during the day.
Stress can be very dangerous for cats as it can affect their health and wellbeing greatly; spotting the signs early can make all the difference.
And what about our feathered friends?
Separation anxiety is a real issue for our pet birds. While they might not be barking or chewing up your furniture, separation anxiety in birds can be equally as stressful for a feathery pet as it is for furry ones. If not managed correctly, it can become very hard to deal with. Birds are sensitive to changes in environment and routine. The stress of being separated from someone or something they’ve ‘imprinted’ on can be fatal. As we have spent more time at home the past year, there is no doubt our feathery friends will feel the impact once we return to work.
Signs of stress, which can include separation anxiety :
- Stress bars on birds’ feathers
- Feather plucking and/or self-mutilation. This can include scratching, digging into their skin, or even muscle or bone.
- Aggression e.g. screaming, scratching, hissing, biting or lunging
- Loss of appetite
- Repetitive behaviour when they’re bored e.g. pacing, tapping, head swinging, screaming
If you feel your pet bird may be suffering from separation anxiety, here are some tips you can implement to help this transition :
- Structure interaction time with your bird so it knows what time of day cuddle/training time is. Important to note that you don’t want your bird to learn when you’re going to leave as they will recognise these signs of you leaving and begin to panic e.g. ‘when I wear this uniform I will be leaving you’.
- Break up your daily routine and vary your departure and arrival times, if possible, so your bird can’t sense when you’re due back
- If you have spent a lot of time with your bird whilst working from home, start to reduce contact, extend periods of time away very steadily but make sure this time away from you is an enjoyable time for them e.g. when you go away they get to play with their favourite toy or they get a chance to forage for their favourite treat from a puzzle. Some birds may fear new things so don’t put a new toy straight into their cage as you’re leaving as his would be terrifying for them.
- At the beginning, leaving your bird should be brief enough that they do not get stressed by it. If your bird gets immediately stressed by you leaving the room it may be that you need to start by simply not being near your bird but in the same room, not looking at the bird or any interaction with the bird for a brief period of time but distract them with something they can explore happily on their own.
- Keep your bird busy throughout the day. Like all pets, birds love toys, especially anything they can tear apart, like tree branches. Change your bird’s toys daily and use different shapes and colours to keep them interested. Try to avoid very bright toys; bright colours are not natural and they can make birds nervous, especially when first introduced.
- Make your bird work for its food. Birds spend a large variety of time in the wild foraging for food so hide food around the cage or purchase a puzzle feeder if you have an intelligent bird.
- Avoid giving your bird too much attention and making a fuss when greeting them after you return home. Say hello and leave it at that until you have been home for a little while.
- If possible, and suitable to your and your pet’s situation, get another bird. Flock birds like canaries, budgies and love birds require a cage mate. Auditory and visual stimulation e.g. Parrot TV channel on YouTube left on the TV, is also an option. Don’t just turn this on when you’re leaving as your bird will recognise this as a sign of you leaving. Have it on various times during the day when you are home.
And remember it’s not just cats and dogs that can benefit from a calming product during these upcoming unsettling times. Pet Remedy is also available, which can be used for all mammals, reptiles and birds. This also makes it a good product to use if you have a multi-species household.
Pet Remedy works with the pet’s own natural calming mechanisms by mimicking gamma amino butyric acid (GABA), which is a natural calming agent present in all mammals, reptiles, and birds. When a pet becomes stressed or anxious the Pet Remedy works by making the nerve cells think they are getting a message from the brain to calm.
A great advantage of Pet Remedy, apart from being a natural option, is the unique way in which it works. It starts to help instantly and is very gentle in its calming effect.
As the product can be used on most animals, it comes in a variety of options so you can pick what best suits you and your pet, from plug-in diffusers, to sprays and wipes.
And so, as we move forward together into 2021, we know that as pet owners we will be prepared for the new ‘new normal’ and whatever it brings, so keep calm, carry on and remember you always have our support.