Pet and owner wellness during lockdown

More and more people are starting to struggle mentally during the COVID-19 lockdown. We’re not used to all the restrictions and new regulations, and some people are finding it hard to cope. Their owners’ higher stress levels and changes in mental health can affect some pets, too.

We asked Dr Quixi Sonntag, lecturer at the Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Pretoria, and expert in animal behaviour, to answer some of the questions you might have.

  1. How can pet owners’ stress affect their pets?

Most dogs and cats are very perceptive when it comes to their caregivers’ feelings, and environmental changes. Some animals are sensitive by nature – for them, these changes could lead to stress. However, just like some people, other pets are very resilient and would probably just take it in their stride.

  1. What can pet owners do to lessen the effect on their pets?

If you think your pet is stressed because you are stressed, you need to sort out your stress! There are so many resources available on social media nowadays – from exercise programmes to meditation guidance and positive thinking skills ideas.

Like us, pets may also experience ‘cabin fever’ and become bored or frustrated, especially those who were used to a lot of outdoor activity and are now confined most of the time. These pets need environmental enrichment and, again, there are some excellent resources online. Just search for ‘dog enrichment’, ‘canine enrichment ideas’, ‘cat environmental enrichment’, and so on. The most popular ideas usually involve presenting food and/or treats in a novel way that requires the pet to problem-solve to get the reward.

A basic example would be to take a plastic cooldrink bottle and make holes in it, put some of your pet’s normal daily rations of pellets in it, and have your dog or cat move it around until a pellet falls out.

  1. Due to the stress and feeling depressed, or bored, pet owners might snack more. In turn, they also offer more snacks to their pets. How does this affect the pet’s health and what should they rather do?

Predictably, overfeeding your pet can cause him to become overweight and susceptible to a range of diseases, including diabetes, arthritis and heart problems. Every time you want to give your pet a snack, rather engage and do a physical activity with him.

Activities to entertain your pet include putting a pellet on each step of the staircase and allowing your pet to eat the pellets as he goes up or down the stairs or rolling a ball around the living room floor. Remember, the game should end with a reward.

For really excellent physical and mental stimulation, consider training your pets to do clever tricks or useful chores, using reward-based techniques. Always be mindful of which online sites you use as reference and get professional advice first.

  1. How can people motivate themselves to engage actively with their pets?

There is ample scientific evidence that points out the physical and psychological benefits of positive interaction between animals and humans. For example, it has been shown that sick people convalesce better if they have pets in the house, children may develop better social skills if they grow up with pets in the household and the company of a pet can ease depression.

  1. When should people get help for themselves and/or their pets?

The issue of human mental health should be examined by a mental health professional as soon as a problem is suspected. Similarly, when our pets have mental health issues, it is much better to deal with them early on. So, if you notice any changes in your pet’s behaviour, or simply full-on craziness, rather reach out for advice before it becomes a big problem. Behaviours such as excessive vocalisation (whining, barking, meowing), destructive behaviour, unusually withdrawn behaviour, fearfulness, aggression, hyperactivity and clinginess may indicate problems.

Very importantly, now that you are spending so much time in the company of your pets, ensure that you do not spend all your time with them – there must be regular periods during the day when they are physically separated from you, like being outside while you are inside, or vice versa, or simply being in another room. This is because, otherwise, some sensitive animals will develop separation anxiety after lockdown is over and when their owners go back to work and school. They will be unable to cope with suddenly being all alone all day. Separation anxiety is best treated with a combination of psychology and medicine, so be sure to contact your veterinary clinic if you suspect your pet has this condition.

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