Your Guide to Post-Pandemic Mental Health Preparation for Your Pet
Many of us are looking forward to getting back to a version of our old pre-COVID lives. As conditions improve, you may have already started planning to head back to the office, host a small get-together or resume your favorite hobbies.
Post-pandemic life, however, may be a little less appealing to our four-legged family members as mental health concerns are likely to accelerate at scale. After more than a year of near-around-the-clock companionship, fewer social interactions with humans and other animals, an increase in door deliveries and more, pets are about to experience changes in their environment that could result in possibly the biggest mental health crisis of their lifetimes.
Prior to the pandemic, studies showed that up to one-third of pets displayed symptoms of separation anxiety, and veterinarians expect these numbers to rise as we begin to spend more time outside of our homes again. Like us, pets thrive on predictability (Remember how stressful it was when the pandemic first upended your day-to-day life?). By proactively addressing behavioral problems and slowly easing into new routines, you can take steps now that put your pet’s mental health top of mind with the goal of neutralizing behavioral issues and driving enrichment. It’s important to remember, however, that even with the best preparation, your pet may experience some separation anxiety.
Social anxiety is another mental health concern that may surface as pets and their pet parents start adjusting to their new routine. Pets adopted during the pandemic and pets in single-pet-parent households may be especially vulnerable to stress since they may have grown used to having constant companionship and may have had limited recent opportunities to socialize outside their homes with other people and pets.
Supporting Their Mental Health: A Four-Week Approach
When preparing your pet for post-pandemic routines and experiences, there are a few important things to consider.
Practice Separation Training:
Being home alone takes practice. Slow, steady, positive separation anxiety training can reduce or avoid stress.
After more than a year of social distancing, it’s important to slowly expose pets to new environments, experiences, animals and people to potentially curb social anxiety.
Set up a Safe Home Environment:
Creating a safe space in your home that includes appropriate calming products as well as favorite toys and a cozy place to sleep can help pets feel more secure when left alone and provide them a safe and comfortable place to recharge after exposure.
Remember, your veterinarian is an invaluable resource. They know your individual pet’s needs and health concerns, so it is important to develop a trusted relationship. Prior to starting any of these tactics detailed below, you should make an appointment with your veterinarian. It is also important to have a physical check because not only is it easy to confuse signs of illness with mental stress, but illness can also exacerbate mental stress.
Post-Pandemic Mental Health: A Week-By-Week Guide
Will your routine soon be changing? Keep reading for our week-by-week guide to easing the transition for your pet.
While we’ve broken things down to a four-week schedule, we recommend getting started as soon as possible and continuing the practice even after your routine changes to support your pet’s mental development. Also, keep in mind that while this training is often extremely beneficial, it will not always guarantee results.
Separation Training:Studies have found that dogs with hyper-attachment behaviors – such as following their pet parents throughout the home – are at higher risk of separation anxiety. To build confidence, practice faux departures, such as taking out the trash, yard work or grabbing the mail, and reward your pet with treats or pets if they were able to get settled into their bed or play independently with a toy when you return inside.
Exposure Training:During social distancing, pets had fewer opportunities to experience new people, pets and places, and that can lead to increased social anxiety. Start by paying attention to your pet’s cues during new exposure. A short car ride and leashed walk are ideal for dogs – don’t jump in with a lengthy road trip or crowded dog park. Take it slow and be observant during walks of things such as unusual pulling or the tail between the legs. Reward relaxed behavior and slowly build up to longer trips. Remember: understanding our pets is not always easy. Consider partnering with a professional trainer to help you learn more about and better understand your pet's behavior cues in new social situations.
STOP:If you notice overt signs of stress such as sudden presence of dandruff, lip licking, abnormal/skittish behavior/lack of confidence, hair on their back standing up, cowering or aggression, return home.
Home Environment:There are a number of tools that can help pets feel calmer when home alone. When you are home, start the trial-and-error period of figuring out which confinement or safe space (crate, room, free roam, etc.) makes your pet most at ease. Also, figure out which toys, treats and calming products* best relieve anxiety. These will be key in creating your pet’s safe space. If you need further guidance, Petco in-store associates can provide recommendations for your pet’s needs.
- Puzzle Toys A busy pet is a happy pet! Engaging toys can help keep your pet physically and mentally stimulated while you’re away.
- Plush Stress Toys: For the more timid of pets, there are now plush toys that mimic another animal with heat packs and a device that vibrates to recreate the feel of a heartbeat. These are best for dogs who don’t have the tendency to rough play with toys.
- Food Puzzles: Treat-dispensing toys give pets a “job” to do – and a tasty reward.
- Calming Supplements, Treats & Chews: Calming treats, chews and supplements use natural ingredients to help relieve stress.
- Diffusers: Pheromone diffusers and sprays can help both dogs and cats relax.
- Anxiety Vests: By providing a gentle “hug,” anxiety vests and wraps may soothe dogs.
- Rawhide Alternatives: Highly digestible rawhide alternatives are a fun way for dogs to unwind.
- Beds: Give your pet a comfy place to rest their paws and a secure place to curl up on when you are away.
- Furniture: Cats tend to play, scratch and lounge in cat trees to relieve stress or to burn energy.
Continue your faux departure practice with chores such as yard work that take you outside for longer but still closeby. Use a pet camera and monitor the feed to observe your pet’s reactions.
While mild stress for short periods of time can be expected as your pet learns to adjust, if you notice moderate to severe anxiety or distress, return home and seek veterinary attention. For mild stress, break faux departures into smaller time frames that can help mitigate that stress response. It’s OK to start with simply walking out the door for a few seconds and coming right back in several times a day, slowly building up to a few minutes then a few hours.
When indoor socialization is safe and advisable in your area, invite pet-savvy friends and family over for a visit. Remind your guests to never force interactions, allowing pets to approach new people when (and if!) they feel comfortable.
If you notice overt signs of aggression or stress such as sudden presence of dandruff, lip licking, abnormal/skittish behavior/lack of confidence, hair on their back standing up, or cowering, remove your pet from the situation.
Specifically pay attention to how your pet does in their safe space while you continue practicing departures. Try a different confinement option(s) if they are showing signs of mental stress such as crying or engaging in destructive behaviors when left alone in their confinement area.
Begin leaving your home for short intervals. Offer a toy and treat, then leave calmly and confidently. Remain casual–making a fuss can raise anxiety.
While watching your camera, if you see that your pet is still unable to settle and is showing signs of moderate to severe stress, try cutting down departure times and seek a vet evaluation.
To continue addressing potential social anxiety, try controlled outings with people, places or pets you know well. Continue praising your pet and providing treats when they display relaxed behavior. Keep in mind that loud places or sudden movements can be scary to our pets and you should avoid them until your pet becomes more confident.
If you notice signs of stress at this point such as sudden presence of dandruff, lip licking, abnormal/skittish behavior/lack of confidence, cowering, hair on their back standing up or aggression, consult your vet.
Now that you have determined the right confinement option for your pet, it's time to take their safe space up a notch. Consider adding another toy or trying a different calming product to make them more at ease.
You and your pet should now be feeling comfortable with your departures. Continue to change up your routine or practice faux departures if your pet starts developing anxiety with your new routine and continue to practice intermittently long term as needed.
By now, your pet should feel more comfortable seeing more people and pets. Keep in mind that just like humans, it is OK for your pet not to love everyone they meet. Pay attention to and reward positive interactions. Continue limiting or slowly working on interactions that may not always be postive for your dog, such as dog parks and loud crowds.
If your pet is still struggling, consult your veterinarian to rule out health concerns or treat as applicable before working with a trainer. Many pet parents are experiencing the same thing, and there is plenty of professional help available, including Petco certified trainers who offer a variety of class types.
Ensure your pet is now willingly retreating to their safe space on their own and appears calm and at ease when there. This will be their haven when you’re away, so go ahead and add that little something special like a new toy!
If these initial interventions are not successful, it's OK! Seek a vet evaluation to help determine if any underlying issues are present and additional ways you can help your pet prepare for a new routine.
As we begin to transition to post-pandemic life, it’s important to consider the impact on our pets and their mental health. For more tools and resources on pet mental health, visit Petco’s mental health page.
*When selecting new items for your pet and their safe space, be sure that you read the manufacturer’s instructions so you can best ensure your pet’s safety.