How your pets may be affected as restrictions come to an end

BBC News reported recently that “3.2 million households in the UK have acquired a pet since the start of the pandemic”, meaning that 17 million households now have a pet living with them.

According to the data, 59% of these new pet owners are aged 35 and under and 56% have children living at home. You could confidently assume that a large number of these new owners will soon be back in school or work, leaving their beloved pets at home alone, possibly for the very first time.

A couple of weeks ago, I travelled to the office to spend a day with the team. It was the first time since September that this was possible, and as I left the house to begin my four hour trip across the country to the office, I got thinking about how my cat would react to my prolonged absence from the house.

I was confident that my cat Chia wouldn’t struggle to adapt to me being gone, she’s been with me for seven years and during a lot of that time I did work from an office, but it did concern me to think of other pets. For millions of pets in the UK, all they would have ever known is life in lockdown, so I began to research how these pets might be affected when their owners aren’t around as often, and what we can do to help make that transition easier for them.

Sarah Tapsell, a regional clinical animal behaviourist for the RSPCA, said:

“You may have changed your routine with your dog if you have been home more. Times for feeding, playing, walking and attention may all be slightly different. Your dog may be getting more or less of these things than before depending on the changes in your schedule.

Changes in routine are something a dog can adapt to, but it’s important to think ahead and begin to make gradual changes before you change your routine again when you go back to work. Otherwise, when things change again suddenly, it may come as a shock to your dog, even if they handled it well before Covid-19. Even the most resilient of dogs can get worried sometimes.

Remember that your dog is a social animal, it’s normal for them to want and need to spend time with you. This means that it is important that you aren’t leaving your dog for too long during the day, or longer than they can cope with. Any dog left too long will struggle, with or without good advice to help them to cope.”

So how can we help our pet dogs during this transition?

Dog welfare expert, Dr Samantha Gaines, of the RSPCA, said:

“Always introduce changes gradually and in a positive way, using only positive, reward-based training. And if you have any concerns about how your dog will cope, it is always best to seek advice from a qualified behaviourist who can support you throughout the changes.”

The RSPCA has provided some top tips to help your dogs through the transition.

  • Gradually change the timings of your dog’s routine to the way they will eventually be. If the time you feed or walk your dog has changed due to lockdown then slowly start to change it back to how it was before. Doing this can prevent your dog from experiencing frustration and anxiety when their daily schedule suddenly doesn’t match what they’ve come to expect.
  • Begin to gradually return your dog’s routine to normal before it has to change. Consider the number of walks, location and times that are part of your dog’s normal routine. Gradually adjust your walks to match this. Our dogs may not be left alone at all during a lockdown or for brief intervals only, and they’re probably getting much more attention and interaction. But if this is likely to change when you go back to work then you need to prepare them for that. Begin to gradually decrease the amount of attention you give your dog, and increase the time they spend on their own. This may include not playing with your dog every time they ask or not stroking them every time they nudge you. Don’t completely ignore your dog as this may confuse them, but do give them something better to do like a comfy bed to lay on or a tasty chew to settle with.
  • Give them a routine as close as possible to the one they’ll experience when restrictions are lifted. Help your dog spend more time alone by encouraging them to rest in their own bed or keeping them in a separate room while you do something else.
  • Give your dog clear signals about when they can be involved in interactions and when they need to occupy themselves. Chew toys or interactive toys your dog can use without you can help you to do this.
  • Try to keep interaction time for when you will be available once your routine is back to normal, for example in the evenings after dinner.
  • You may also want to think about leaving the house without the dog to help your dog gradually get used to this part of their routine again. If you need to build up this time for a longer duration or for more frequent absences, think about going to sit in the car to read a book so that you can leave the house and stay within government guidelines. However, if your dog shows any distress when left alone then pause your plans and seek the support of a qualified behaviourist.
  • If you are returning to using a dog walker, friend or family member to care for your dog while you are busy they might be very excited or even a little apprehensive having spent time with only you. It can be useful for you to remain home on the first walk or two, just in case your dog needs any extra support from you.

What about our beloved furry felines?

Sarah Tapsell said:

“All cats are individuals and some may enjoy human companionship and time with people more than others. This means there will likely be some cats who are enjoying the increased time spent with their owners during lockdown whereas other cats may be happy to have more quiet time when you return to work.

Whichever kind of cat you have, cats can be sensitive to change, and so a change in routine can cause stress to your cat. It is important to make any changes gradually, whilst still ensuring all their needs are met.

Before going back to work it’s a good idea to gradually reduce the amount of interaction you have with your cat to help them prepare for your return to work. For some cats, a sudden reduction in interaction could lead to stress and frustration as the cat’s expectations are not being met, although others may be happier to have less interaction.

It’s important to try and identify how your cat is feeling especially if they are doing something that is unusual for them compared to how they are normally. A cat who seeks more interaction from you and maybe plays more roughly with you may be frustrated or bored and struggling with the reduction in attention. A quiet and withdrawn, or more irritable cat may be stressed and in need of its own space. It can be useful to recognise this so you can give them their own time and a safe place to rest. If you know your cat well, you will likely know where their favourite places are.

Once you do go back to work, ensuring you still spend quality time with your pet when you return, and doing things which they enjoy such as playing or grooming is also important in helping them get used to any changes.”

How can we help our pet cats during this transition?

Cat welfare expert, Alice Potter, of the RSPCA, said:

“Compared to dogs, who are a highly social species, cats naturally live in small family groups and can often cope with a more solitary life. This means they can sometimes seem aloof to us and at times, just want to do their own thing without us.

But even if your cat isn’t a fuss loving, attention-seeking lap cat they can still get stressed from your return to work so take time to make the transition as smooth and stress-free as possible.

After spending so much time together during lockdown you’ll probably be excited to see your cat after a long day at work. Once you get home though, it’s best to keep things calm and give them time to greet you on their terms. Look out for the cues that your cat gives to show they want to spend time with you, or if they’d rather have some alone time. For example, approaching you with their tail held up with the end pointed horizontally is a friendly greeting and a cat that is hiding needs to be given space.”

The RSPCA has provided some top tips to help your cats through the transition.

  • Any changes in routine should be introduced gradually
  • Ensure your cat has hiding places and elevated resting places which help relieve stress for cats by offering them a safe place to hide
  • Ensure you aren’t over handling your cat to try and comfort them. Being picked up or followed around can add to their stress if this is not their choice
  • Gradually adjust your routine to what it will be when you return to work i.e. feeding times and frequency, playtimes
  • Help prevent boredom whilst you are at work by providing puzzle feeders, toys and scratching posts – this is especially important for indoor cats
  • Your life may become a lot busier after lockdown but it’s important to ensure you still spend quality time with your cat every day

I was relieved; when I got home from the office my cat was her normal, playful self. I have a feeling she may have slept all day until I got home, but I’ll never know for sure. Next time I’m going to install a camera so I can see what she gets up to in my absence. I doubt it would be much like the Secret Life of Pets but could provide an interesting insight into what my cat does when I’m not around.

There are now 34 million household pets in the UK, and each and every one of them deserves to be loved and live a safe, comfortable life. Our returning to work and school shouldn’t negatively impact their happiness.

We have already seen that for many, looking after a pet is challenging and some who became a pet owner during the pandemic have likely had second thoughts. I was shocked to read that over 5% of pets acquired during the lockdown have since been sent to shelters, the reality is that the number is possibly much higher and likely to increase further.

We implore you to help your pet during this transition, make life as comfortable as possible for them and soon enough you will have created a new normal with your pet. One that suits both of your post-lockdown lifestyles.

And please remember, a pet is for life, not just for lockdown.  Do as we do, take your dogs to the office if you are allowed.

Mike Payne – New Business Development, Bizfella Ltd