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Supporting Pets During Lockdown

Lockdown can be just as challenging for animals as it is for their owners. Catherine Reeve and Grace Carroll, Lecturers in Animal Welfare and Behaviour, explain how you can support your pet during the pandemic.

While we feel the frustration of lockdown, household pets, such as cats and dogs, can be finding this big change of routine just as stressful. Catherine Reeve and Grace Carroll, Lecturers in Animal Welfare and Behaviour at Queen’s explain: “What was once a quiet household during the day is now constantly occupied by people. While some animals will welcome the constant presence of their owners, others may find the increased activity overstimulating. If you’re working from home, your animal may not understand why you’re not engaging with them or are shooing them away. Dogs may be getting less exercise than they once were, or they may not be able to roam freely off their lead outside.”

Smiling dog

So how can you tell if your pet is finding things stressful?

“The main indicators of physical health in both cats and dogs are normal eating habits, normal defecation, and regular energy levels. It important to be aware of any sudden changes to your pet’s regular routines.

“Watch for specific behaviours that indicate your pet may be uncomfortable, anxious, or distressed. The most obvious indicators are behaviours including, but not limited to, pacing, repetitive behaviours, increased vocalisations, accidents in the house, hair loss, and chewing at oneself. But there are much more subtle signs of unease or distress that pet owners often miss, like yawning, increased blinking, and lip licking. If you’re spending much more time with your pets these days, this is a good opportunity to learn about and watch for these behaviours in both cats and dogs.”

If you’re concerned that your pet is experiencing too much stress, consult with a certified force-free, positive reinforcement behaviour expert or veterinary behaviourist. There are also some simple steps you can take to help them at home.  

Making your pet more comfortable:

Here, Reeve and Carroll suggest simple steps you can take to make your pet more comfortable and help them adjust:

1. Establish a routine

“Many of our animals will be most comfortable if a regular routine is established. Try to feed, and for dogs, walk, your pets at the same time each day. If you’re working at home, try to establish work hours, during which time you interact minimally with your pet. Although both us and our furry companions would love to snuggle and play all day, establishing this routine will help our animals down the line when we have to head back to work outside of the home.”

Sleeping cat

2. Respect quiet time

“It is important to respect our animals’ need for quiet time. We should never disturb our companions when they’re sleeping or follow them when they leave the room for alone time. One way to give our pets control over the amount of human contact they receive is to provide them with a bed or crate where, when they occupy this space, no one interacts with them. This way, our animals know that if they need time to themselves, they will always have somewhere quiet they can go. And very importantly, young children should always be supervised when interacting with pets.”

3. Offer mental stimulation

“In the home, you can give your cat or dog their meals in a puzzle toy or snuffle mat . If you have a garden, you can throw your dogs’ food into the grass so they can use their nose to sniff it out. During play times, you can play fun, interactive games with your pets; hide their favourite toy or treat in different locations around the room and have them search for it, play tug with a safe toy, and practice learning new tricks together. Training is a great way to engage your dogs’ mind, and for you and your dog to bond.

There are numerous cat toys available commercially but home-made toys can be just as effective. While each cat will have their own preferences, cats tend to prefer toys that move, like wand toys. This allows them to act out natural behaviour like stalking, chasing and pouncing.”


4. Keep things as normal as possible

“Try to maintain your previous schedule as much as is feasible. For example, try to feed your animals and walk your dog at the same times you would have before lockdown began. If you’re working at home, try to maintain a regular “work” schedule, meaning, maintain periods of time where you do not interact with your animal. Predictability can be comforting for our animals and this regular routine will make the transition from lockdown into whatever comes next, more manageable and less stressful for you and your pet.”

5. Manage their diet

“If your pet is free fed, meaning they always have access to food, there is a risk of them overeating especially if coupled with stress or boredom. A good way to avoid overfeeding is to measure out your animal's allocated amount of food for the day and only feed this amount.”

Dog with a stick

About Dr Catherine Reeve and Dr Grace Carroll

As lecturers at the Animal Behaviour Centre, Queen’s University Belfast, Dr Reeve and Dr Carroll study the welfare of captive animals, how animals affect their humans’ wellbeing, and how us humans understand and manage our animals’ wellbeing. As such, they spend a lot of time reading about, observing, and training animals.

Dr Catherine Reeve’s research interests are animal cognition, animal psychophysics, and applied animal behaviour. Her research focuses on domestic dog olfaction and how best to train and evaluate sniffer dogs for a variety of applications. She is also interested in how the study of animal cognition can inform the care of and improve the welfare of captive animals.

Dr Grace Carroll’s research interests are in the areas of farm animal welfare, cat welfare, evolutionary psychology and human-animal interactions. She is particularly interested in animal welfare assessment, abnormal behaviour in animals, and the psychology of pet keeping.