This week we welcome summer and mark more than three months of living with COVID-19 precautions. While we may be starting to feel more settled in this new normal, that doesn’t mean our pets are quite yet. If your dog is behaving differently than he or she did pre-Coronavirus, they’re not alone. Pet owners across the country are noticing changes in their canine’s behavior, and our new “stay-at-home” version of life is likely the cause.
“Our pets are very susceptible to emotional and physical changes happening around them,” says Dr. Meghan Herron, Gigi’s Veterinary Behaviorist and Senior Director of Behavioral Medicine Education, Research and Outreach. Even if a change at home has nothing to do with them, our pets recognize our response to that change and feel it too. “To them, we’re acting weird, and so in turn they’re going to act weird toward us,” Dr. Herron says.
Why Your Pet May Be Acting Odd
Many pets are responding to our increased time at home so strangely for three reasons: change is hard, we’re in their space, and they’re in tune with our stress level.
- Change is hard. Just like it can be for humans, change can be difficult for your dog too. “Just like us, dogs tend to like routine and get used to it… and then, suddenly, we’re at home, our children are at home, and we’re all over them,” says Dr. Herron. “Even though it can be welcomed affection at first, it’s still a big change.”
- We’re in their space. Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, most pets were on their own at home lounging or sleeping for six to eight hours a day while we were out of the house. Now, they’re barely out of our sight. For those who may have kids at home, all that togetherness can be even more intense. With many recreational activities and playgrounds still closed, kids need another outlet for physical play and often turn to their dog or cat as a playmate. Some may welcome the extra attention, but even the most patient pets have their limits. If you haven’t already, read more about preserving the bond between your child and pet.
- Pets are in tune with our stress. Finally, our pet may be acting odd right now because he or she is picking up on our own stress. Most of us have plenty on our minds, from worrying about our health and our family’s safety, to our jobs, the economy, the state of our nation, and more. “Our pets know us very well,” Dr. Herron says. “When we’re stressed, they pick up on it and often directly reflect it in their own behavior.”
Changes in Behavior
If you’ve noticed a significant change in your pet’s behavior, first make sure those changes aren’t a sign of a physical problem. Because you’re spending more time at home these days, you may notice your pet is ill sooner than you may otherwise. Contact your veterinarian and get your pet checked out to make sure there’s nothing physically ailing him or her.
Mental Signs of Stress
Once you’ve confirmed there’s nothing physically wrong with your dog, write down the differences you and your family are noticing in your pet’s behavior. Perhaps your dog who was once an attention hog is now avoiding playing or being touched, retreating to quiet areas of the house more frequently, or just trying to separate themselves from you or the family more in general. On the flip side, maybe your dog who is normally pretty independent is now super clingy, watching your every move, following you to the bathroom, and refusing to go into their crate. If your dog is experiencing signs of separation anxiety like this, don’t miss these coping tips from Dr. Herron!
“Our pets know us very well,” Dr. Herron says. “When we’re stressed, they pick up on it and often directly reflect it in their own behavior.”
Physical Signs of Stress
Watch your dog during an interaction with you or your family. Are they leaning away, licking their lips, excessively yawning, and/or doing a “wet dog shake” right after being in close contact? These physical responses are called displacement behaviors. Basically, your pet is saying they are uncomfortable with what’s happening, and they need a physical outlet for that stress. So, they do a behavior that’s socially acceptable in another context but is out of place in that moment, like excessively yawning when they aren’t tired or shaking like a wet dog after a bath when they’re dry.
Other signs of stress in your pets include a change in their eating or eliminating habits, such as peeing or marking outside their normal areas. Finally, fear aggression is another telling sign of a stressed pet. Fear aggression is a behavior like growling, biting, or scratching that your pet uses to communicate they are scared or in pain. While these behaviors generally don’t indicate your dog or cat has an aggression problem (the behaviors are more of a defensive communication tool), they can still do physical or emotional harm and lead to bigger problems within your family.
How to Help Your Pet
It takes time to help your pet adjust to change, just like it does for humans. Here are a few things you can do to help:
- Create a routine or mini-routine for your pet at home – pets love consistency just like people and kids do!
- If your dog is struggling with separation anxiety, read all about strategies you can implement now and when you leave the house to help your pet cope.
- Carve out time to give your pet some dedicated attention, even if it’s just 10 or 15 minutes. Check out this list of activities to do with your pet this summer or create your own Triangle of Activity to do with your dog. A Triangle of Activity is a mini-routine of physical activity, mental stimulation or brain training, and one-on-one social contact.
- Be sure your pet has time for independent play every day – learning to self-soothe is important for them too!
- If there’s rising tension between your child and pet, Dr. Herron’s SOS strategy can help save their precious bond during high-stress times.
- Establish a relaxing, quiet space for your dog that’s all their own, whether it’s their crate or bed, and encourage them to retreat to that area if you notice they’re overstimulated. Be sure your children know the space is off-limits.
Dr. Meghan Herron is a board-certified Veterinary Behaviorist and is Improving the lives of shelter dogs™ by serving as Gigi’s Senior Director of Behavioral Medicine Education, Research and Outreach. As a diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (DACVB), she is one of 70 veterinarians in the country, and one of only a few in the animal welfare world, with this unique specialization in both the medical and behavioral care for animals.