Here's how to help your pets cope with the stress of lockdowns and holidays

A miaow or a woof speak volumes: learn to read your fur babies’ signals of distress

31 December 2021 - 00:02
Dogs can become depressed if they aren't trained to be happily alone; owners need to take the time to observe their animals to learn to read their behaviour and respond appropriately, say animal behaviourists.
Dogs can become depressed if they aren't trained to be happily alone; owners need to take the time to observe their animals to learn to read their behaviour and respond appropriately, say animal behaviourists.
Image: belchonock / 123rf

Unusual behaviour, separation anxiety, biting, disappearing for extended periods — family pets are experiencing distress, happiness and deep confusion as routine changes caused by lockdown are compounded by the holidays.

“It’s been a very interesting time,” said Joburg animal behaviourist Carmen Bekker, who has observed various common and widespread changes in domestic pets.

“When lockdown came into effect, I had a lot of calls about dogs and cats suddenly biting their owners and children. It was a confusing time for everyone.

“Cats were just not used to people in their space all the time and being fussed and petted. Dogs were happy to have people around, but they were also not used to constant interaction and attention.

Animal behaviourist Carmen Bekker
Animal behaviourist Carmen Bekker
Image: Facebook/Camen Bekker

“So while they loved it, they would get confused and develop separation anxiety when their people then went back to normal and had to leave them again.”

Bekker said many animals were suddenly afforded random privileges in lockdown, such as being allowed on the furniture, but were confused when they were suddenly barred from beds.

And now, with owners on holiday, pets are once again confused by the sudden change in routine.

“People don’t always realise how stressful this is for the animal,” said Bekker. “Dogs pace, they eat their feet, they shake and tremble, and they just can’t cope. It’s easier for cats, which may enjoy the peace, and can just remove themselves if there’s too much faffing.”

She advised pet owners to make as little fuss as possible when leaving home or returning  to ensure dogs, in particular, don’t associate chaos or distress with their owner’s changing presence.

“When you get home, wait five to 10 minutes, then greet your animals when everything is calm,” she said.

Samantha Walpole of Be The Dog animal behaviour consultancy, said while cats are generally more aloof animals than dogs, which are generally more social, it was best to handle pets as individuals, each with their own particular needs.

“The best gift you can teach an animal is to be happy on their own.” She said dogs with separation anxiety could act out by howling or calling, with some barking three times, then listening for a response, then barking three times and listening — sometimes incessantly.

Animal behaviourist Samantha Walpole.
Animal behaviourist Samantha Walpole.
Image: bethedog.co.za

She said animals in distress can be destructive, change their eating habits, scratch, moult, or engage in inappropriate elimination or elevated behaviour such as growling (the animal version of shouting), launching at people or even biting.

“When there are big changes, monitor your animal and call in help; don’t wait for full-blown distress to manifest,” said Walpole.

Animal behaviourist Ady Hawkins of The Talking Dog said one of the major challenges was pet owners’ failure to understand and read their animals correctly.

“Cats like to sleep in the day and go out hunting at night, so when they are disturbed they become sleep deprived. Dogs like to sleep up to 22 hours a day, so when people are in their space they can become overtired, overstimulated or frustrated,” she said.

Another common problem is people pouring their feelings of extreme stress or other emotions into their animals, which then battle to cope.

She advises pet owners to take the time to observe their animals to learn to read their behaviour and respond appropriately.

“Animals communicate just like we do. They show you when they need affection or want to be left alone. There are so many resources that describe calming signals and animal language that people are spoilt for choice if they take the time to learn.”


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