- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
In the months since the global pandemic upended life as we know it, humans have adapted quickly and dramatically to the changes required to keep society afloat: We’ve swapped dining out for takeout at home; some of us are working remotely; and in many places, obligatory mask-wearing and keeping a six-foot distance from one another is the new accepted normal.
We’re also spending a lot more time with our pets, and, in record numbers, adopting new cats and dogs into our families. In some ways, the COVID-19 era has been a golden age for pets and pet parents, with more time than ever to nurture the special bond between us.
At the same time, many of us have had concerns about everything from the right way to socialize new puppies to how to help our dogs and cats adjust to new routines once we resume our old schedules.
So, what’s the new normal for our pets?
We asked two of Rover‘s Dog People panelists, Dr. Rebecca Greenstein, Veterinary Medical Advisor for Rover and Chief Veterinarian at Kleinburg Veterinary Hospital, and certified professional dog trainer, Nicole Ellis, some questions about how to help our pets adjust during and after this unprecedented time.
A chat with veterinarian Dr. Rebecca Greenstein and certified professional dog trainer, Nicole Ellis about COVID puppy socialization and overall pet wellness.
Rover: As humans, we are all experiencing this uncertain period in different ways. What are our pets going through?
Dr. Rebecca Greenstein: We have a running joke going in our circles that pets conspired to have us stay at home so they could enjoy our company.
For the vast majority of dogs, they are enjoying the increased contact with their owners, getting more attention, stimulation, increased exercise. Most of my patients are absolutely loving this, it’s their dream come true.
There are some pets who don’t enjoy being sheltered in place with prolonged exposure to people. For example, if you have a shy or fearful pet, or certain rescue or ill animals, those pets may not enjoy having constant attention by family members, especially children. These pets need special consideration in getting appropriate hiding spots and breaks from excessive or unwanted attention.
Cats and dogs are both inherently very social creatures, but while dogs are constantly seeking human attention, cats don’t always enjoy the extra attention all at once. Studies have shown cats have decreased cortisol or stress hormone levels when they are given a hiding place, even if it’s a cardboard box. So it’s important for cats to have a place they can call their own.
R: After all this extra attention and exercise we’ve been giving our pets, how can we prepare them for an expected return to “normal”?
Nicole Ellis: Separation anxiety is a big concern pet parents should be thinking about now, whether that’s finding a person for dog daycare nearby, a pet sitter so your dogs can stick to their routine, or planning to book extra walks while you’re at work.
We should be preparing our pets for more alone time, and we need to give them time to adjust, so giving them some alone time in the house, working your way from 5 minutes at a time, to 10 minutes, and so on.
Try to think of your dog’s old schedule and try to get back to that. Feed meals around the time you’d actually be feeding them during a typical workday, and provide plenty of enrichment before you leave the house: puzzles, Kongs, scent games. These activities really work a dog’s mind and tire them out, preventing boredom.
Playing enrichment games such as snuffle mats or puzzle toys, spending time in different rooms, say he’s in a room playing with his Kong while you’re in another room reading your book. Or work on your crate training.
RG: My advice to my clients regarding their pets is to avoid extremes: whatever you’re doing, try to make it look more realistic, feasible, practical. Your dog may be really enjoying three hours of walks every day right now, which is fantastic, but that is a very unrealistic standard if you have to reduce that by 75%. You’re going to end up with a dog with a lot of pent up energy who won’t know what to do with herself.
Base what you do with your pet on your old schedule, not on being home 24/7. Think of things like doggy daycare, investing in a crate, how to get in at least a half of hour of exercise a day, and budgeting for new services like dog walkers or pet sitters.
For cats, top off your toy box, because you’ll need to replace some of the attention and stimulation they’ve been receiving from you and redirect their energy towards a desirable outlet as opposed to say, scratching the furniture.
R: What’s your advice for training and socializing puppies right now?
RG: We talk a lot about how to socialize our pets and how to teach them how to be around people, but we often overlook how we need to teach them how to not be around people and the importance of alone time. That’s going to be a lot more in line with how pets’ lives are going to be post-pandemic.
Even though we as new puppy owners enjoy constant attention from and to our puppies, it’s important to make sure that every few hours puppies have some time out, where they have to spend some quiet time on their own, and that they build that into their routine.
Not unlike children, puppies crave structure, and they need to learn what we expect from them; owners can simulate alone time by setting aside alone time when they’re in the crate alone with their toys, and make it a positive, comfortable experience.
A lot of people think you’re not properly socializing or greeting a dog if you’re not petting them, but dogs are such sponges for visual stimulation that a range of everyday encounters, from hearing different noises to seeing someone in sunglasses, is very instructional. You are helping that puppy, even if it’s at arm’s length. This is a big lesson here.
Pet parents can also make short trips outside of the house leaving their pets alone, to introduce them to what alone time is like, and show them this new experience is one they can handle and they can cope with.
Something as subtle as the texture of the ground they walk on, walking on concrete, walking on grass, seeing someone in a mask, someone not in a mask, these are things that are very important to a puppy’s social development, and these lessons are taught in ways that don’t have to be profound to you, but they are profound for the puppy.
All these experiences of exploring the world: As long as the outcome is positive, then you’re really helping to build their confidence, and make them into more well-adjusted animals for the long term.
R: What about helping our dogs and puppies to become familiar with seeing people in PPE, masks, and the other new signifiers of the coronavirus era?
NE: In the same way that taking out an umbrella, wearing different sorts of outfits, hats, and sunglasses, it can be a positive experience. It’s all baby steps.
Right now, we can’t be going to puppy class, but you can sit outside your house and see dogs and other people from a distance. You can keep it fun, and interact with your dog, and let him know it’s OK if he sees a dog over there, or someone in a mask, it’s nothing to be afraid of or stressed about. Or, oh, there goes a garbage truck, I’m petting you, we’re having a nice time. That wasn’t scary, here’s a treat!
As he gets older, seeing a new dog or encountering new situations shouldn’t be stressful. People with beards, a police siren, someone in a baseball cap, men, women, someone in uniform, children, things like this are all part of socialization, you can sit on your front porch and watch people go by and you’re letting your puppy get socialized.
When someone gets a new younger dog or puppy, people often forget the goal of socialization. and that doesn’t mean, “I’m going to throw my dog into every experience and let him figure it out.” Socialization should be a positive period that will shape the rest of the dog’s life, and it’s gently exposing them to a wide variety of things and experiences, from people and places to dogs and situations.
It should be a calm and positive experience where he’s getting treats and praise but he’s still getting exposed to things and the feeling of seeing something new is fun.
R: Is there any concern for potential aggression, or other behavioral issues, in our pets during quarantine or as we re-introduce them back into the daily rhythms of human society?
NE: I would say cases of aggression would be rare, but getting back into the swing of things, it’s likely that dogs could easily become overwhelmed. Think of a kid going back to school the first day after summer break; they’re nervous, it’s a new situation, one they haven’t been in in a while, which can be overwhelming. Some dogs will be perfectly fine; other dogs will be like, “This is a lot.”
I wouldn’t just drop my dog off at a daycare facility with 20 dogs and leave for work for the day. Instead, I’d be more likely to go to a home daycare where there are two or three dogs and they can keep a close eye on him, if he’s anxious, nervous, or needs some time out.
I wouldn’t bring him to a birthday party with 50 kids, either. I’d take baby steps, making sure he’s still confident. Set up a playdate with one or two dogs; set up a half-day daycare session. We can slowly work our way back up to normal.
Depending on your local regulations, maybe that’s going to your local pet store and walking by their doggie daycare area, where he’s between the glass but can see the other dogs. Or you can walk by a local dog park without going inside, I do this a lot in my training. Just sit there for a while and let him watch the dogs play; this is a good way to ease his nervousness, and since you don’t know the other dogs, he can’t get hurt.
Study your dog’s body language, from his ears to his tail. A lot of time we’ll see dogs giving us the smaller signs of stress, so look out for excessive yawning or lip-licking, if his eyes are getting tighter or his snout is getting tenser. Those are signs of stress, communication that he’s not ready for certain things. If you’re at the park and you notice he’s doing these things, it’s time to go back to the car before he gets more stressed out.
RG: Regarding behavior and body language, it’s also important to rule out that there aren’t any underlying medical issues that might accompany any unusual pet behavior you might be observing. If a pet seems to really not be enjoying the young kids in the house, it could be that they have arthritis, or something else is going on, such as an underlying systemic illness, or a stress-induced condition, or even a hormonal disorder.
I know a lot of pet parents think they can figure it out on YouTube or “Doctor Google,” but if you’re concerned, don’t let it become a severe problem. There is literally a huge field of experts from certified trainers to board-certified veterinary behavioral specialists who can help. Book a telemedicine appointment, or it may be time to book a physical with your vet.
One thing this pandemic has actually helped is increasing awareness of how the mental health and behavior of both people and pets can be impacted by our environments and our emotions. If this situation helps to lift some of the taboo surrounding mental health in general, that would actually be hugely beneficial to everyone.
Dr. Rebecca Greenstein and Nicole Ellis shared a lot of useful strategies to help us help our pets manage during this unprecedented time. We’ve compiled them below for a quick review, followed by suggestions for further reading you may find useful.
- Be aware of the needs of pets recovering from an illness, and shy, fearful, or rescue pets, as they may be particularly sensitive now
- Give pets breaks from excessive attention, especially cats
- Start to implement realistic walking, exercise, and feeding routines based on what your new schedule will look like
- Anticipate needs you may not yet have, for dog-walking services, daycare, pet sitting, or even a crate for crate training
- Redirect your pet’s attention from you to activities such as enrichment games and toys they can play alone
- Puppy socialization comes in many forms; your pet has the best chance to be well-adjusted if their encounters during this time are positive and rewarding
- Use the suggested techniques to help your dog learn it’s OK to spend some time alone
- For any new or unfamiliar situation or setting your puppy or dog may encounter, acclimate them gently with rewards and praise and keep it positive
- Pay attention to your dog’s body language and behavior; they will let you know if and when they are ready for new experiences or situations, as well as old ones
- If your dog is withdrawn or exhibiting other unfamiliar behavior, book a physical or telemedicine appointment with your family veterinarian
For more information about how to stay sane and keep your pet happy and safe in the new post-COVID-19 era, continue reading with one of the articles below.