Most reading this who share their lives with companion animals would agree they provided solace over the past challenging year of social disruption. I know that the friendship, camaraderie, and sense of purpose our rescue German Shepherds brought to our home seemed to have bracketed a sense of normalcy within the otherwise dramatically abnormal—and stressful—situation the COVID-19 pandemic produced. After the loss of our beloved Boris early in the pandemic, we also recently brought a new member into our family, Sasha, a lovely, playful three-year-old German Shepherd who is fitting into our interspecies family wonderfully as she learns that people can be trusted.
We weren’t the only ones to welcome new companion animals into our homes during the pandemic. A June 2020 piece pointed out that many people suddenly forced to stay at home during quarantines and layoffs adopted or fostered dogs and cats at what appeared to be a record pace, and animals shelters around the country were having difficulty keeping up with the demand. An analysis of Google AdWords searches in August 2020 found up to a 55 percent increase in adoption-related search terms in cities across the USA. And the same source reported survey results that found 94 percent said that their companion animals had been a source of emotional support throughout this stressful period. And studies querying companion animal caretakers consistently report findings like those highlighted in the Psychology Today blog by Dana Dorfman, The Health Benefits of Pet Love: Evidence Supports the Contention that Pets Affect Our Overall Health. That review noted that, for instance, one poll found nine out of 10 respondents concluded companion animals were helping to lower their stress.
But is it truly that simple? While one large-scale survey in the UK conducted by Elena Ratschen and Emily Shoesmith, et al. found “the vast majority of animal owners perceived their animals to help them cope with the pandemic context and reported that they constituted an important source of emotional support,” they also reported that “concerns and worries relating to caring adequately for animals at this time, when access to, for example, veterinary care, animal feed and adequate outdoor exercise spaces was limited, were also frequently reported.” That is, while respondents perceived their companion animals provided them with positive pandemic mental health relief, concerns for companion animal care also caused stress.
Given the effects of the pandemic upon human mental health, it would be surprising if companion dogs were not also impacted. According to Dr Teresa Tyler, a Canine Behaviourist with a PhD in Anthrozoology from Exeter and Director of TheDoGenius, reports of behavioral issues in adolescent dogs have increased. “Puppies acquired during ‘lockdown periods’ have not had the comprehensive socialization required during those critical early weeks. Young dogs are frequently being seen struggling to even walk a few paces from their front doors and are afraid of new people and places. These types of problems are also being reported more in countries that had very strict COVID-19 restrictions, such as Spain and Italy, where dogs had little opportunity to leave the home environment.”
Tyler’s insights are borne out by research. One study that looked at the effects of the initial confinement period on Spanish pet owners, their pet cats and dogs, and the relationship between them, found that dogs (as well as cats) demonstrated signs of behavioral change consistent with stress during lockdown. Dogs who had pre-existing behavioral problems were the most affected. Problematic behaviors that increased included aggression, vocalization, fear of loud or sudden noises, and problems being left alone at home.
While the causes of these behaviors might be varied, a lack of socialization, particularly for “pandemic puppies” acquired during lockdown, plays a role. According to Jenna Kiddie, the head of canine behaviour at the U.K. Dogs Trust, “Puppies haven’t been getting the same mental stimulation they would have done. They haven’t been exposed to visitors to the home in the same way or been around other dogs. So we’re very worried about how they’re going to respond. Because they will probably respond with fear, and one way a dog can cope with fear is to use aggression.” Because of this, dog bites are on the rise by a threefold increase after the start of the first lockdown according to a study by John Tulloch, a vet and epidemiologist at the University of Liverpool.
As the pandemic draws to an end, experts agree it’s time to start helping housebound dogs adjust to the post-pandemic world. This help includes both (re)socialization and learning how to be alone as guardians possibly return to work. In addition to pandemic puppies, older dogs who were initially well socialized also have become fearful of humans and other dogs due to the isolation the coronavirus brought about. Tips gleaned from the above articles to help acclimate dogs to others include having people over and in the house, where dogs might not have seen other humans for a while. If the dog is particularly fearful, Jenna Kiddie at the Dogs Trust suggests getting them used to visitors to the house again by teaching them to associate a door-knock or bell-ring with a treat in its bed, so that it automatically heads for bed rather than the door. Play dates with other dogs and people can help with socialization as well.
Regarding separation anxiety, Tyler notes that overall dogs seem to be adapting relatively well to their human families returning to work, with exceptions where the dogs had pre-existing problems being left alone. If you are going back to the office even months from now, New York City dog trainer Shelby Semel suggests slowly giving dogs increasing alone time starting now. Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil, a veterinary behaviorist and clinical assistant professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, points out that this should not cause us undue stress. “Even though they haven’t wanted to be left alone all day, an awful lot of dogs don’t want to be with us 24/7.”
Through the last year, people and their companion dogs have brought each other both support and stress. As we all acclimate to our new, broader social worlds again, it’s now up to us to help ease them back into the society we share.
Rescue of Pets. The Role of Veterinarians in the Human-Animal-Environment Relationship at the Time of the Coronavirus, Journal of Applied Animal Ethics Research, 3(1), 91-102. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/25889567-BJA10017
Armbruster, K. (2016). Challenges and Rewards of Human–Canine Relationships. Society & Animals, 24(2), 205-207.
Bekoff, Marc, 2020. Do Pets Really Unconditionally Love and Unwind Us? Pets are choosy about who they love and don’t always reduce stress. Psychology Today blog.
Herzog, Hal, 2020. Do Pets Improve Mental Health During COVID Lockdowns? The surprising impact of pets on mental health during lockdowns. Psychology Today blog.
Herzog, Hal, 2019. The Sad Truth About Pet Ownership and Depression: What a review of 30 studies reveals about the impact of pets on depression. Psychology Today blog.
Reevy, G. M., & Delgado, M. M. (2015). Are emotionally attached companion animal caregivers conscientious and neurotic? Factors that affect the human–companion animal relationship. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 18(3), 239-258.
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