Lockdowns create a year of problems and health risks for pets and their owners

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Joel Bautista

Farah Javed

Social distancing and staying at home for almost a year have left many people feeling lonely, leading many to make the impromptu decision to buy a pet. The spike in pet purchases, however, has been followed by problems for these comfort pets and their owners.

Quarantine began in the United States in March 2020, and people stayed in their homes with no clue as to when they could go outside and see others again. Whether someone lived alone or was elderly and wanted a friend, pets appeared to be the perfect companions.

Currently, there is no evidence that animals can spread the COVID-19 virus, according to the Center for Disease Control. Hence, pets provide a solution to fighting loneliness and the mental health detriments that come with quarantine, while also not getting their owners sick.

Many Americans realized this, resulting in an uptick in pet purchases. From March to December 2020, approximately 12.6 million households took in pets, according to the American Pet Products Association.

These numbers show no sign of stagnating.

“We expect pet adoption rates to continue increasing as work from home and flexible work schedules become more normal,” Sophie Bakalar, co-founder of premium pet gear brand, Fable, said.

“Pet adoption rates increased both because of a need for emotional support and also just that the opportunity was there. It is a lot easier to have a pet when you’re not going into the office as much.”

The issue, however, is that people fail to realize dogs, cats and other animals do not come pretrained.

“Dogs are predisposed to want to be with other people. They’re social animals,” canine expert Alexandra Horowitz said.

Pets have been a coping mechanism for owners during the pandemic, but people forget that animals like dogs are social too. Without this social connection to other animals, they can begin to feel depressed.

Pets have spent more time with their owners at home now than before the COVID-19 outbreak.

When their owners leave home for groceries or for their jobs as workplaces reopen, pets can develop separation anxiety due to the missing presence that has been by their side all day for the last year.

“The world just shut down in 24 hours,” Tracy Krulik, a dog trainer and behaviorist in Northern Virginia, said. “It didn’t just change for us, it changed for the dogs. And it’s frustrating and stressful for them to have gotten used to a routine, and now everything’s shifted.”

Dogs have actually become needier over the pandemic, according to Tufts Now. Owners may have noticed their dogs nuzzle them for hugs or jump into their laps more often. Dogs have been doing this because they are stressed so hugs and rubs are ways they feel comforted.

Dogs have also been barking more, primarily at people and dogs walking outside to protect their territory from the influx of strangers.

To help their dogs adapt to their new environment and remain mentally unharmed, many owners have enlisted the help of trainers.

Melanie Benware, a trainer and the president of the International Association of Canine Professionals, has spent the pandemic identifying behavioral changes in dogs.

For one couple, their dog became more aggressive. Benware found that the dog had developed a Napoleon complex,” which is a type of inferiority complex.

“Any time that we would try to introduce him to another dog on a walk, he was aggressive and protective of us and didn’t know how to play well with others,” she said.

Cats are another common household pet that has struggled during the pandemic.

According to a poll by Royal Canin in August, 57% of cat owners expressed they felt alone during quarantine and 49% said cats lowered their anxiety.

Clearly, there is a disconnect in the relationship between cats and their owners, because cats have increasingly shown signs of stress as the pandemic progresses.

For instance, if a trained cat is urinating everywhere but its litter box, it is doing so because it is stressed.

Some other signs of stress in cats include excessive shedding, crouched body positions, an extreme increase or decrease in eating and sleeping, lethargy and even aggression.

To remedy these problems, veterinarians suggest creating a routine for pets, especially for cats. Routines allow animals to regain a sense of control and feel safe.

For cats particularly, safe spaces are another way to quell their anxiety. Cats are creatures that like to hide, have time for themselves and have a sense of security.

A “sniffari walk,” one in which a dog takes the lead, is also beneficial for dogs since it “allows the dog the freedom to check out new smells and allows them to choose what direction to go .”

Dogs can be their adventurous selves again, which could be that boost of serotonin they need to feel happy.

In general, soothing sounds and scents can also help pets feel better.

“Scents such as lavender and chamomile are known for their ability to mollify stressed pets,” according to Today’s Veterinary Nurse. “Additionally in dogs, valerian, vanilla, and ginger have shown promise in calming anxious dogs.”

Reducing noise at home prevents pets from getting excited or scared, in turn providing them with an environment to relax. Classical music and songs specifically designed for animals can calm their heartbeats and help destress.

Ultimately, buying pets during the pandemic does have its benefits.

People are alleviating their own loneliness and stress. Pet adoptions are also leading to some pet shelters being empty for the first time.

However, as people wait in line to get the COVID-19 vaccines and the nation inches towards a return to normalcy, they need to remember to have a symbiotic relationship with their animals. The public needs to keep in mind that pets are not just comfort objects, but furry friends that need to be taken care of.