Sheltering in Place? Your Pets May Be Stressed Too

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

shelter in place

Story at-a-glance -

  • During this period of shelter-in-place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, like us, our pets can feel stressed and anxious due to a change in their routine
  • Our animal companions can also pick up on our feelings of stress and instability
  • There are lots of fun and stimulating activities you can do with your dog or cat to reduce stress and improve quality of life for both of you during the shutdown
  • It’s also important to spend some time away from your pet so that he or she won’t feel stressed all over again when life in your household returns to normal

With so many people across the globe sheltering at home during the novel coronavirus pandemic, humans aren’t the only ones dealing with stress and anxiety — so are our animal companions. Even minor variations in their daily routine can be hard on dogs and cats, so don’t be surprised if your pet’s behavior has changed over the last several weeks.

“Getting into things they shouldn’t is a top phone call we’ve been receiving,” veterinarian Dr. Heidi Sutcliffe of Norwell Veterinary Hospital in Norwell, MA told CBSN Boston. “Surfing counters, getting into the trash, destructive behavior, pent up energy not and being able to settle down are all signs they may be stressed.”1

At the moment, many households are much more hectic during the day than furry family members are used to, and while some pets are soaking up all the extra attention, others may be overwhelmed and in need of some solitude.

In addition, if your dog is used to regular doggy daycare sessions, frequent visits to the dog park, or simply being out and about with you, spending most of his time at home indoors can have a negative effect on his behavior.

As much as possible, stick to the daily routine your pet has come to expect, especially feeding times, potty walks, litterbox maintenance, playtime, and sleep schedules. Structuring your day will benefit both your pet and you. It can help you “flatten the curve” of emotions that arise when you’re feeling isolated and anxious about the future. And always remember: your pet can be deeply affected by your mood.

Feline Friendly Shelter-in-Place Activities

Consider incorporating some of the following fun activities into your kitty’s day to help him burn calories, fight boredom and manage stress during the shutdown:

1. Hunting for food and treats — Your cat, while domesticated, has maintained much of his natural drive to engage in the same behaviors as his counterparts in the wild, including hunting for food, which also happens to be great exercise. A great way to do that is to have him “hunt” for his meals and treats.

Separate his daily portion of food into three to five small meals fed throughout the day in a variety of puzzle toys or indoor hunting feeder mice. You can also hide his food bowls or food puzzle toys in various spots around the house.

2. Cat trees and elevated vertical spaces — Climbing, scratching, and stretching are natural feline activities that help keep their bodies well-conditioned and their minds stimulated. Indoor cat trees should ideally reach from floor to ceiling, be very stable (not wobbly), and covered with a variety of cat-tractive materials to entice kitty to climb, stretch, and claw. If you can place your cat tree near a window, even better.

Cats also enjoy climbing to high perches to watch the world from a safe distance, so make sure the cat tree has at least one. You can also add wall shelves and window seats to give kitty a range of choices.

3. Feather toys — Interactive feather toys, especially one called Da Bird, are irresistible to most cats.

“What I recommend is two play sessions a day and work up to 10 or 15 minutes per play session,” says feline behavior consultant Dr. Marci Koski. “You want to get your cat running, leaping and jumping.

You want to get him engaged in the prey sequence, which is staring, stalking and chasing, pouncing and grabbing, and then performing a kill bite. That will tap into his predatory instincts and let him feel like a cat.”

4. Catnip — Some kitties go wild for catnip, so a catnip toy can be an ideal way to get your kitty in the mood for some interactive playtime. When a susceptible cat (not all cats are affected by catnip) absorbs the nepetalactone in the herb, her pleasure centers in the brain are activated and the next thing you know, she's rolling around in a state of goofy bliss.

And despite the fact that catnip appears to make kitties "high," it’s an entirely harmless and non-addictive herb.

5. Hiding boxes — When cats in the wild feel threatened, they head for trees, dens, or caves to seek safety. Captive kitties don’t have that option, so their obsession with hiding in boxes may be an adaptation. And studies show access to hiding boxes reduces feline stress, especially in shelter cats.

Many cats also use hiding boxes as cardboard jungle gyms and spend time playing in and around them.

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Helping Your Dog Stay Calm and Relaxed

If you have your own fenced-in backyard, take advantage of it while you’re stuck at home by inviting your dog to join you in some interactive play. Throw a ball for her, or a Frisbee. Play a game of tug or chase her around the grass.

Also, long walks or a hike during which you let her sniff anything and everything can dramatically reduce your dog's heart rate and stress level. Getting outside for some fresh air and exercise will be very beneficial for both of you, as long as you can do it safely. Indoor games and activities to keep your dog mentally stimulated:

1. Hide and seek — Hide and seek provides your dog with both mental and scent stimulation. Here’s how to do it. Grab a few treats and give your pet a sit-stay command. Go into another room to hide, and once you’ve tucked yourself out of sight, call your dog. When he finds you, reward him with praise and treats.

If you’ve taught your dog a find-it command that sends him in search of something, you can also play hide and seek with objects or food treats. To play, show your dog what you’re about to hide, and then do a sit-stay or put him behind a closed door so he can’t see you. Hide the object or treat, then go to your dog and tell him to find it.

Unless your pup is whip smart or has played the game awhile, you’ll probably need to give him verbal cues as he gets close to, or farther away from the object. You can also give physical hints by pointing or moving toward the hiding place until your dog catches on to the game. When he finds the hidden object or treat, be sure to make a huge deal out of it with lots of praise and a few additional treats.

2. Word recognition — With time, patience, and plenty of practice, most dogs can learn to associate certain words with certain objects. Here’s how to start. Give two of your dog’s favorite toys a name — something simple, like “ball,” “bear,” or “baby.”

Remove all other toys from sight to help her focus. Say the name of one toy and throw it so she can retrieve it. Do this a few times, repeating the name of the toy as you toss it. Then do the same with the other toy.

Now put both toys on the ground and say the name of the first toy. Each time she goes to it, reward her with praise and treats. If you want to add a level of difficulty, have her bring the toy to you for her reward. Repeat this with the other toy. When you’re sure your dog is consistently identifying the right toy by name, you can try expanding her vocabulary using additional toys or other objects.

3. Step aerobics — If your dog is fully-grown (her joints are fully developed) and you have stairs in your home, this game is a good way to get her heart pumping. Go to the bottom of the stairs and put her in a sit-stay. Throw a toy up to the landing, then give her the nod to go after it, ascending the steps as fast as she can.

Allow her to come back down the stairs at a slower pace, to reduce the risk of injury. Ten or so repetitions of this will get her heart rate up and tire her out.

4. Flirt stick — Also called a flirt pole, it’s a simple pole or handle with a length of rope tied to one end, and a toy attached to the far end of the rope. You can buy one or make your own homemade version, just be sure to use regular rope and not flexible or bungee cord.

Flirt sticks appeal to the prey drive in dogs, and they’re a fun way to exercise your pet in your backyard (or in the house if you have the space or your dog is small) without overly exerting yourself. The game is simple — you drag the toy on the ground in a circle, and she chases and tugs at it.

The flirt stick can be a fun way to help your dog with basic commands like sit, down, look, wait, take it, leave it, and drop it. It’s also useful for helping her practice listening while in a state of high arousal and cooling down immediately on command.

5. Nose work with treats — Your dog, like all dogs, has an incredible sense of smell, so teaching her to find treats using only her nose is wonderful stimulation for her. Place four or five boxes or opaque containers on the ground upside down and next to each other. Place a treat under one of the containers while she isn’t looking, then bring her to the boxes and encourage her to smell them.

When she (hopefully) stops at the one containing the treat, lift up the box, praise her enthusiastically, and let her eat the treat. Keep adding more boxes and place them farther apart to increase the challenge as your dog’s nose work abilities improve.

When Life Returns to Normal

Just as many pets find having the whole family around day and night for several weeks a bit unsettling, they’re just as likely to be stressed when all their humans are coming and going again, and they don’t get to see or interact with them as often.

Said another way, the temporary shelter-in-place “normal” will become your pet’s new routine in which he’s used to having round-the-clock human companionship. This can set the stage for some separation anxiety when life begins to return to normal, so it’s a good idea to leave the house regularly during the shutdown — to go for a walk around the neighborhood, or grocery shopping or some other errand.

This will help your pet accept your absence again when you’re back at work and the kids are back in school.