With the rise in remote working arrangements, many people are spending more time with their pets than ever. As a result, they are discovering the secret life (and health) of their furry companions. But how can pet owners manage their pets’ physical and mental health at home? Read on for tips from the pros.
Dr. Kate Garbaciak, a veterinarian at Boulevard Veterinary Logan Square (2740 W. Armitage Ave.) said the clinic has been busier than ever since shelter-in-place started and is booked up to three weeks in advance. The main reason she said people are booking appointments is they have been paying more attention to their pets while stuck at home.
“Pet owners are not only prioritizing their pets’ wellness, but they are also noticing more subtle signs of illness they did not notice before,” she said.
Since April, Boulevard Vet has been offering curbside and telemedicine appointments. Pet owners and pets alike have appreciated the service during stressful times, Garbaciak said.
“I think pet owners are just grateful we are open and their pets can be seen at this time,” she said. “Most of the vets at Boulevard Vet have been certified in stress-free handling tactics to make pets feel more comfortable and happier. A private waiting room and a bit of peanut butter can go a long way to alleviate a stressful visit at the vet.”
Garbaciak gave us some tips on how to best care for your pet while you’re stuck at home. Want some pet-provided methods for handling your own pandemic stress? Check out our cat-approvied tips for coping with quarantine.
Manage your own mood
“If you are feeling stressed, pets pick up on that,” Garbaciak said. “Together, pets and pet owners are bouncing off each other, and together they are anxious. There is definitely correlation between neurotic animals and owners displaying neurosis.”
Keep a schedule
One of the best things you can do for your animal is to keep a set schedule for your pet. If they get a puzzle toy for stimulation in the afternoon, for example, make sure to do that every afternoon. Pets are like many of us, Garbaciak said. They aren’t good at change, so keeping a routine is important.
The way you set up that schedule might depend on your fur baby’s species. While dogs might think all this face-time with owners is the greatest thing ever, your cat may be more like, “When are you going to leave me alone?” The best way to manage cats is to follow their lead, Garbaciak said. Dogs are often down to do whatever you want, but cats frequently need to think it is their idea.
Create a safe zone
Both cats and dogs normally sleep when you are at work, and they enjoy their downtime, Garbaciak said. But with their owners home all the time, these pets are overstimulated and sleep-deprived. So one of the best things you can do is give them a special space to rest on their own. If you have kids, that might mean blocking off a whole room where your pet can get away from the youngsters during the day.
One good thing about pet owners staying home is that they are walking their dogs and playing with their cats more frequently, Garbaciak said. But there’s a downside for pet health to all that time with the owner: Vets have seen a slight weight gain in pets, as owners are likely to give in to more-frequent begging for treats.
Not to mention that pets get into more foreign foods and objects when they are awake and you are busy working, resulting in “My dog has diarrhea from eating …” phone calls, Garbaciak said.
To manage weight (and boredom), Garbaciak recommended food puzzles for cats and dogs. These can help with digestion and weight management and keep your fur babies mentally engaged and entertained, she said.
Plan ahead for unexpected noise
Many construction projects have stayed on track this summer, and the increase in fireworks has been a real issue for pets. Not just over the Fourth of July but since mid-May, fireworks have been troubling dogs who have noise phobias, Garbaciak said.
“We are having a hard time keeping anti-anxiety meds on the shelf to help alleviate these issues,” she said. Suggested medications include trazodone, a mild antianxiety medication, and Sileo, a gel you put on a dog’s gums that can be dosed up to five times a day.
But there are alternatives to drugs, including the ThunderShirt (a calming wrap for dogs), your pet’s favorite blanket and white noise machines. Another tactic is to give your dog a treat every time a firework goes off or during loud thunderstorms, so they associate the noise with something positive (brilliant idea). (But be sure to avoid giving too many treats overall, of course.)
Regardless of how you manage your animal’s anxiety indoors, you should avoid taking your pet outside during peak firework hours, Garbaciak said.
Play calming music
Clinical studies and research from iCalm suggest that playlists for cats and dogs really work! To give it a try, start with iCalm’s Spotify playlists “Through a Dog’s Ear” or “Through a Cat’s Ear”. Spotify has also released Pet Playlists to help you curate a soundscape for your special fur baby.
Ask a Behavioralist
For more-chronic behavioral issues, pet owners should get a referral to an animal behavioralist, Garbaciak said.
Kelly C. Ballantyne, of Chicago’s Insight Animal Behavior Services, is a Logan Square resident and the go-to behavioralist for Boulevard Vet. One of her biggest areas of focus is separation anxiety and aggression in animals.
“For dogs who suffer from aggressive behavior, right now can be tricky for walks, because everyone is out and dog parks are closed so it can be hard to avoid other dogs,” she said.
The practice is concerned right now about pet owners returning to past routines, like going back to the office or socializing on weekends. As this happens, and new pets (who have had only one routine) are left at home, separation anxiety will rise, Ballantyne said. A routine is a critical tool to remedy anxiety from transitions and separation, she said.
Returning to the office in the next few months? Traveling for business again? Moving apartments? Taking a foster pet or a new puppy or kitten on a road trip for the first time? If so, it is best to start introducing your new routines now, before the change happens, Ballantyne said. Even if your pet doesn’t have separation anxiety, going from 24/7 contact with you to being alone or kenneled 8 to 10 hours a day will be a hard transition.
Ballantyne gave some tips for helping with that transition now:
- Start introducing short absences into your day.
- When you leave the house, give your dog or cat something to keep them occupied, like a food puzzle or a favorite toy.
- Think about a more realistic walk schedule for when your new routine starts. Give your dog one to two months to adjust to that new walk schedule, as your current routine is probably not sustainable.
- If you are moving, try and get the animals out of the house first. Not only is a move anxiety-inducing, but it is also often how pets get out and become lost.
- If you are headed out of town, make sure your cat or dog has a microchip and tags. Before the long drive, take short trips in your car to prepare your pet for a longer ride.
- When renting out a vacation home or going somewhere new with your pet, limit your animal’s access to the whole house at first as this can be overwhelming. Set up an area with familiar stuff and give your pet a designated corner or space where they can chill. Let them get comfortable with the new space before you run off to do errands. And always leave a person behind.
- When you’re traveling or when other transitions are happening, you may need to give your pets something to relax them. There are lots of fast-acting supplements and medications, but you should always talk to your veterinarian about using these.
New Pets on the Block
Garbaciak and Ballantyne both said their biggest concern right now is for fosters and new adoptions. While it’s amazing that fostering and adoptions have given so many cats and dogs homes during the pandemic months, vets hope that these will remain permanent, suitable homes once things return to normal.
Furthermore, as many dog parks have been closed and training resources are limited, foster dogs are often missing out on the proper socialization, patio and park hangs, and training that they would normally get. To address this, Ballantyne recommended that dog owners invest in private training and organize playdates (taking into account social distancing).
She recommended Anything Is Pawzible as one resource offering phone and virtual consults with certified trainers. The Chicago dog trainers work out of four locations, including at Active Dog (2550 W. Diversey Ave.).
Ballantyne has also written on pet behavior, including contributing to the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists’ book “Decoding Your Cat” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020), a new release this month. It and another book in the series, “Decoding Your Dog” (Mariner Books, 2015), are both available for purchase on Bookshop.org and Amazon.
Featured photo: Janna Reddig