Visiting Vet: Pets in a pandemic

Our pets have to get used to the new normal.

Sully the kitten. — Connie Berry

Every night after dinner, I retire to the living room to watch television, read a book, maybe do a crossword puzzle. As soon as I sit down, Captain Jack Sparrow, our big Maine coon cat, comes to sit on my lap. Well, actually, on a pillow on my lap, as he likes to dig his claws into my legs. I check him for ticks and comb out the mats behind his ears. Meanwhile, our second cat, Tigerlily, arrives. She likes to perch on the back of the couch, resting her head on my shoulder. This is fine with me. Captain Jack, not so much. The two have never gotten along well, even though we adopted them as kittens at the same time. There is sometimes growling, or hissing, occasionally a minor physical spat … which wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t happening on my lap.

Lately I’ve noticed both cats being simultaneously more needy and more irritable. Hmm, sounds like everyone else in the family. Owners often don’t think about it, but this ongoing home quarantine is affecting pets as well as people. Our households have changed during this time. In most homes, pets are suddenly having to deal with more humans being present more hours of the day. Often these are little humans. Very active, noisy, and unpredictable little humans. In other households, there are far fewer people, as family, friends, and neighbors no longer come to visit. And in almost every home, there is an undercurrent of tension and anxiety.

In places where more people are now home most of the time, pets may thrive on the extra attention, but some find it stressful. Animals like routine. It makes them feel safe. But COVID-19 has disrupted everybody’s routine. As we humans explore how to manage all this unscheduled time, many pets are understandably disturbed. Maybe Weltschmerz, the Weimaraner, used to go for a walk once a day. Now he goes for three. Pre-pandemic, he might encounter only one other dog on his morning stroll. Now he encounters lots of folks out walking their pups. Instead of a friendly up-close greeting, or face-to-face conversation, he senses something odd. People eye one another warily, and keep their distance. Weltschmerz doesn’t understand COVID-19. He just knows his owners seem uncomfortable and unusually cautious around other people. Even safe inside his house, Weltschmerz may notice more dogs walking past his window every day, making him feel the need to stay on high alert.

In an article titled “Why your pet is acting like a weirdo during quarantine,” by Michael Waters in the Highlight by Vox, the author cites a paper by Fabricio Carballo, an animal cognition researcher at the University of El Salvador, which showed that dogs experience higher levels of anxiety when their owners are stressed. An earlier study done in the U.K. found the same was true for cats. “It is possible that owners are the ones behaving strangely, and their dogs are trying to adapt,” says Carballo. They “may be bored, and ask their pets to perform new tricks, pushing them to behave strangely.”

Sometimes it’s not anything you are doing intentionally. Our dog, Quinna, has always been particularly fearful of loud noises. The blender is her bȇte noire. With my younger, health-conscious daughter now doing college remotely from home, this kitchen appliance that sat dormant all winter is suddenly getting daily use. The dog is not happy, and runs to hide every time the whirring begins. We are working with her to desensitize her to the sound, but it’s hard to find the time with the whole family trying to work from home simultaneously. See? A change in routine for the humans results in increased stress for the dog.

Pets are also very sensitive to the emotions of the people with whom they live. Most of us, no matter how much we meditate, or do yoga, or drink wine, are still more anxious these days. Our pets pick up on this. It’s called “emotional contagion.” Maybe they can simply smell our fears and frustrations. Or maybe there are visible, audible manifestations. In our house, when conversation at the kitchen table becomes worried, or intense, or when tempers flare as we go into how-many-weeks-is-this-of-all-being-home-together, Quinna reacts to us like we are all blenders, and slinks away and hides. Even the cats occasionally retreat to the basement.

Your pets may respond to their upset by exhibiting changes called “displacement behaviors.” Weltschmerz may start humping things, or panting and pacing. Jitters, the Parson Russell, may bark or whine, or spin in circles. Cats may groom themselves excessively, pulling out hair and causing bald spots. They may fight with each other more (just like stressed humans). Dogs may become more territorial, more aggressive, or on the other hand, be increasingly clingy, seeking reassurance by staying in close contact with their owners. You may see a change in appetite, either increased or decreased. Pets with a tendency for gastrointestinal upset may have more frequent bouts of vomiting or diarrhea. Others exhibit their anxiety by an increased need for activity. Jitters used to go to sleep on the couch as soon as everyone left for work. But now everyone is here. All. The. Time. Walkies? Ball? Why are you still here? Ball? Squirrel?

So while you are figuring out your own ways to cope with the “new normal,” help your pets adjust, too. Keep a consistent schedule for feeding, walking, and play. The more structure, the better. If your pet is elderly or has physical challenges, don’t overdo the exercise. Let sleeping dogs lie. Want to dress up Weltschmerz and make a YouTube video? Some pets will be willing participants in such activities. Others are not. Remember these are living, breathing, sentient creatures, not dolls or toys here for our entertainment. Pay attention to how they are feeling. Be thoughtful. Be kind. And if your dog is like Quinna, maybe wrap the blender in a towel before making your morning smoothie.