Spending More Time with Your Pet due to COVID-19? Strategies to Cope

If you’re staying home as much as possible, your pet is probably pleased – but here are some ways to cope with any issues that may arise.

Tips for spending more time with pets due to COVID-19
Photo: VP Photo Studio/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented situation. As people are increasingly needing to spend more time at home, that means spending more time with pets. Your pets are probably very happy about this, but as we all know, extra time in a small space can always lead to issues. Here are some tips to help.

Stick to your routine

Dogs, cats, and other pets like routine. If possible, stick to your routine with them and do the things that you normally do at the normal times: feed them at the same time of day, take your dog for bathroom breaks and walks at the usual time, and anything else that is part of your normal routine with them.

Let pets have safe spaces

While it’s true that your pet is probably very happy to have you at home, sometimes even they can have too much of a good thing. Make sure your pet has a safe space where they can go to relax if they want some alone time. For dogs, this could be a pet bed where you will never disturb them, or a crate with some nice cozy bedding in it. For cats, hiding spaces should be just the right size for an individual cat, as even in a multi-cat home, cats like to have space on their own. For cats, providing a safe space is one of the five pillars of a healthy feline environment (and problems with the environment can cause behaviour issues, which is the main welfare issue facing pet cats).

Supervise pets and young children closely

Young children are at greater risk from pets, and in particular they are at much greater risk of dog bites. To reduce the risk of a bite, don’t let young children approach a dog that is sitting or lying down but instead teach them to call the dog to them (with your help).Use pet gates and barriers to keep them separated while you can’t supervise closely, and if you are supervising, take a cautious approach. Research shows that many people mistakenly think that dogs are relaxed around young children when they aren’t - and dog owners are worse than those without dogs at this. See the danger hidden in plain sight for more on dogs and children.

Make more time for play

Play is important for our pets. It’s an outlet for normal behaviour and helps strengthen their relationship with you. So now is a great time to fit in more play time, whether it’s a game of tug with your dog or playing with a wand toy with your cat. Did you know that cats who get more play time with their owner are less likely to have behaviour problems?

Use a harness for walking the dog

If you’re practicing social distancing*, it’s still okay to take your dog for a walk, but you (and your dog) need to stay 2 metres (6 feet) away from everyone else. This means your dog must be on a leash. If you don’t normally walk them on leash and it turns out they pull pretty hard, get a front-clip harness. I love the RUFFWEAR Front Range Dog Harness but other options include the Freedom No-Pull Harness (especially good for escape artists because like the Front Range, you can use the back and front clip), the Sense-ation No-Pull Dog Harness, and the balance harness. Most dogs are happy to be walked on a harness, but as always when introducing something new, give lots of treats to create a positive association.

You should also train your dog to walk nicely on leash using treats as frequent rewards. And remember to give your dog plenty of sniffing time!

Do some tricks training

If you want to tire your dog out without taking them on a walk, tricks training is the perfect thing. Use great dog training treats and break the behaviours down into little steps so as not to go too fast. There are plenty of trick training videos on Youtube. You can also try tricks training with your cat, or maybe use the spare time at home to teach them to use their cat carrier (there’s a plan in my post on 8 ways to help your cat go to the vet).

Feed them with food puzzle toys

Another way to provide enrichment for your pet is to use food puzzle toys to feed their meals. Food puzzle toys mean that your cat or dog has to work to get their food.  In cats, food puzzle toys can help reduce behaviour issues. For both dogs and cats, start with easy toys and use treats to get them interested, and then start to feed their meals via the toys. Great options for cats include the SlimCat toy, the Egg Cersizer, Trixie 5-in-1 Cat Activity Center and Doc & Phoebe's Indoor Hunting Cat Feeder.  There are also lots of options for dogs, including the KONG and Kong Wobbler, the Outward Hound Dog Brick toy, and the Idepet Dog Toy Ball.

Don’t use punishment

If you’re at home more than normal, you might find that some of your pet’s behaviours are more irritating than normal because you’re there and so they happen more often. Don’t make the mistake of using punishment – such as shock collars, prong collars, leash corrections, yelling, or using spray bottles – because punishment is associated with risks to animal welfare including fear, anxiety, stress, as well as an increased risk of aggression and of a worse relationship with the owner. (see: seven reasons to use reward-based dog training for more, or check out my list of scientific studies on dog training).

Instead, decide what behaviour you would like to see instead and use positive reinforcement to teach your pet to do it. Use food to reward behaviours you like, and if you’re teaching a new behaviour, remember to break it down into easy steps. Sometimes you can prevent the behaviour you don’t like from happening in the first place e.g. don’t leave food on the counter if you don’t want your pet eating it and keep the garbage locked up.

Some dog trainers are now offering online classes and consults so you can still meet with them, just not in person. The same guidelines for choosing a dog trainer apply as usual.

Use barriers as needed

You might be doing a few different activities than usual – like exercising at home because you can no longer go to the gym. Most animals will be fine with this, but if they keep coming near and getting in your way, you can always shut your pets in a different room or use a pet gate to keep them separate while you do your workout. Either that, or just enjoy the extra attention while you’re trying to stay in downward facing dog.

Get your learning on

This is a great time to learn more about your pet, and it might provide a nice distraction from all the breaking news. You’ll find a ton of free articles here on Companion Animal Psychology, and can start with all about dogs. all about dog training, and all about cats. If you’re a dog person, you might also like my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. (See what people are saying about Wag here).

There are some great online courses on dog training, including Jean Donaldson’s Dog Training 101 at the Great Courses, and My Fantastic Friend has an online tricks class. Meanwhile, for kids in your home, Kate LaSala is offering an online tricks class just for kids.

Finally, remember to look out for more vulnerable people in your community who might need a bit of help, even if you have to do that help from a distance, whether it's dropping off groceries and pet food on the doorstep or just chatting over the phone to help them make sense of what's going on.

The tips in this article are a good idea at any time, and will hopefully help you and your pet get along better. For more ideas, see five fun things to make your dog happy and five things to do for your cat today.

How are you and your pets coping with the current situation?

*Note, social distancing is not the same as self-isolation or isolation. Read more about the difference on the Canadian government website and stick to the recommendations that apply in your area.

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