This week we welcome summer and mark more than three months of living with COVID-19 precautions. While we may be starting to feel more settled in this new normal, that doesn’t mean our pets are quite yet. If your dog is behaving differently than he or she did pre-Coronavirus, they’re not alone. Pet owners across the country are noticing changes in their canine’s behavior, and our new “stay-at-home” version of life is likely the cause.
“Our pets are very susceptible to emotional and physical changes happening around them,” says Dr. Meghan Herron, Gigi’s Veterinary Behaviorist and Senior Director of Behavioral Medicine Education, Research and Outreach. Even if a change at home has nothing to do with them, our pets recognize our response to that change and feel it too. “To them, we’re acting weird, and so in turn they’re going to act weird toward us,” Dr. Herron says.
Why Your Pet May Be Acting Odd
Many pets are responding to our increased time at home so strangely for three reasons: change is hard, we’re in their space, and they’re in tune with our stress level.
- Change is hard. Just like it can be for humans, change can be difficult for your dog too. “Just like us, dogs tend to like routine and get used to it… and then, suddenly, we’re at home, our children are at home, and we’re all over them,” says Dr. Herron. “Even though it can be welcomed with affection at first, it’s still a big change.”
- We’re in their space. Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, most pets were on their own at home lounging or sleeping for six to eight hours a day while we were out of the house. Now, they’re barely out of our sight. For those who may have kids at home, all that togetherness can be even more intense. With many recreational activities and playgrounds still closed, kids need another outlet for physical play and often turn to their dog or cat as a playmate. Some may welcome the extra attention, but even the most patient pets have their limits. If you haven’t already, read more about preserving the bond between your child and pet.
- Pets are in tune with our stress. Finally, our pet may be acting odd right now because he or she is picking up on our own stress. Most of us have plenty on our minds, from worrying about our health and our family’s safety, to our jobs, the economy, the state of our nation, and more. “Our pets know us very well,” Dr. Herron says. “When we’re stressed, they pick up on it and often directly reflect it in their own behavior.”
Changes in Behavior
If you’ve noticed a significant change in your pet’s behavior, first make sure those changes aren’t a sign of a physical problem. Because you’re spending more time at home these days, you may notice your pet is ill sooner than you may otherwise. Contact your veterinarian and get your pet checked out to make sure there’s nothing physically ailing him or her.
Mental Signs of Stress
Once you’ve confirmed there’s nothing physically wrong with your dog, write down the differences you and your family are noticing in your pet’s behavior. Perhaps your dog who was once an attention hog is now avoiding playing or being touched, retreating to quiet areas of the house more frequently, or just trying to separate themselves from you or the family more in general. On the flip side, maybe your dog who is normally pretty independent is now super clingy, watching your every move, following you to the bathroom, and refusing to go into their crate. If your dog is experiencing signs of separation anxiety like this, don’t miss these coping tips from Dr. Herron!
A welcome change that is not welcome
What if your dog’s behavior changes in a desired direction? For example, if your hyperactive dog rests more instead of bouncing off the walls or is no longer running along the fence and barking at anything that goes by?
As much as you might welcome such change, it is still likely a sign of a potential problem
Changes in behavior
There is a lot of overlap but things that qualify as changes in behavior include:
- new aggression
- unexplained disobedience
- loss of interest in play or walks
- obsessive behaviors
- excessive sleepiness
- loss of housebreaking
- avoiding touch/grooming
- changes in vocalization
- mood changes
The most common cause behind changes in behavior or routine is pain. Whether it is from an injury or a disease, surely you don’t want your dog to suffer. Pain can cause any of the above signs or their combination. What signs you might notice depends on how much and where it hurts.
Signs of pain are not always as obvious as crying or limping. It is essential to have your veterinarian investigate and get to the bottom of it. Pain is the first reason you should suspect when your dog’s behavior changes.
Physical Signs of Stress
Watch your dog during an interaction with you or your family. Are they leaning away, licking their lips, excessive yawning, and/or doing a “wet dog shake” right after being in close contact? These physical responses are called displacement behaviors. Basically, your pet is saying they are uncomfortable with what’s happening, and they need a physical outlet for that stress. So, they do a behavior that’s socially acceptable in another context but is out of place in that moment, like excessively yawning when they aren’t tired or shaking like a wet dog after a bath when they’re dry.
Other signs of stress in your pets include a change in their eating or eliminating habits, such as peeing or marking outside their normal areas. Finally, fear aggression is another telling sign of a stressed pet. Fear aggression is a behavior like growling, biting, or scratching that your pet uses to communicate they are scared or in pain. While these behaviors generally don’t indicate your dog or cat has an aggression problem (the behaviors are more of a defensive communication tool), they can still do physical or emotional harm and lead to bigger problems within your family.