Kara M. Burns
MS, MEd, LVT, VTS (Nutrition), VTS-H (Internal Medicine, Dentistry), Editor in Chief
Kara Burns is an LVT with master’s degrees in physiology and counseling psychology. She began her career in human medicine working as an emergency psychologist and a poison specialist for humans and animals. Kara is the founder and president of the Academy of Veterinary Nutrition Technicians and has attained her VTS (Nutrition). She is the editor in chief of Today’s Veterinary Nurse. She also works as an independent nutritional consultant, and is the immediate past president of NAVTA. She has authored many articles, textbooks, and textbook chapters and is an internationally invited speaker, focusing on topics of nutrition, leadership, and technician utilization.Read Articles Written by Kara M. Burns
The world has been thrust into a new way of living as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. With stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines in place, people are spending more time in the home with their pets.
However, for many the coronavirus pandemic has led to feelings of stress and anxiety. The everyday routine of life has changed significantly for us and our pets. Many pet owners are unaware that pets are experiencing stress and anxiety along with them. Having the entire family home all day, every day is a big alteration in routine for dogs and cats (and birds, guinea pigs, etc.).
How Quarantine Affects Your Pets
The stress and anxiety can be felt by our pets. Pets feel our stress as well. Dogs can register human emotions by the expressions on our faces.¹
Dogs are considered members of the family and reside in close contact with their owners. Because of this, dogs have developed particular skills that allow them to interact and communicate efficiently with people.² Recent studies have shown that the canine brain can pick up on emotional cues contained in a person’s voice, body odor, and posture, and read their faces.3-5
In a home with an alteration in routine and increased stress levels by the human occupants, it is not surprising that veterinary hospitals are seeing an upward trend in cases of behavior issues. How does this stress manifest? What can veterinary teams recommend to pet owners to help ease the stress in their pets?
What Are the Signs of Stress in Pets?
There are numerous signs of stress that owners may be noticing since quarantining with their pets. Ask the pet owner if they have noticed any of these signs in their dogs or cats.
Signs of Stress in Cats
• Changes in litterbox usage
• Gastrointestinal changes (diarrhea, vomiting, flatulence)
• Increased grooming (and increased hairballs)
• Decreased food intake
Signs of Stress in Dogs
• Gastrointestinal changes (diarrhea, vomiting, flatulence)
• Decreased appetite
• Less playful
• Alterations in barking
• Destructive chewing (shoes, household items, etc.)
• Increased chewing and/or licking of themselves
Veterinary teams must understand and explain to owners that these signs may be symptomatic of increased anxiety in the home. At the same time, many of these signs could be indicative of an underlying condition which the veterinary team should rule out prior to suggesting behavior modification.
Environmental Enrichment for Cats
Contrary to popular belief, cats are very social animals. It is necessary for pet owners to determine where their cat focuses their sociability. Cats typically have socialization needs focused on play, food, or interactions with their humans. Veterinary teams must help owners to understand their cats’ sociability needs and encourage owners to focus on those needs during this time of increased stress.
Some may want to be petted more, some may want to play more (interactive toys are a wonderful outlet for play), and some may take to eating more. Pet owners must be vigilant in making sure their pet is eating, but not too much. Providing cat condos, toys, and places to hide are important enrichment tools for cats. Feeding puzzles allow for cognitive stimulation while cats ‘hunt’ for the food inside.
Stress Reducers for Dogs
Physical exercise is very important for dogs in alleviating stress. Veterinary teams should be discussing the proper exercise program for the specific pet with the owner prior to beginning a new regimen.
Additionally, veterinary nurses cannot forget to discuss mental exercise—it is just as important when alleviating stress and boredom in dogs. It is important to discuss interactive toys and brain games to ensure they are cognitively engaged and entertained. This also results in less destructive behavior.
Feeding puzzles are a great resource for dogs too! Dogs are natural foragers, so making them work for their bites of kibble is a great way to work their brain. Go for a walk or play fetch—this gets the owner and the pet moving.
Recommend a “Sniffari walk” with their dog.6 This type of walk allows the dog to take the lead and follow their nose wherever it wants to go. The owner is with them to keep them safe, but a Sniffari allows the dog the freedom to check out new smells and allows them to choose what direction to go (keeping safety in mind).
It is extremely enriching for dogs to use their sense of smell (sniffer), and their brain is processing so much information that it makes these kinds of activities an excellent way to burn excess energy. Sniffaris also allow for the owner and the dog to decompress and reduce stress levels.
More Stress Reducers for Dogs and Cats
Soothing scents: They are not just for people, and in fact can be integrated into the pet’s environment thus offering comfort. Scents such as lavender and chamomile are known for their ability to mollify stressed pets. Additionally in dogs, valerian, vanilla, and ginger have shown promise in calming anxious dogs.
Soothing sounds: Sounds also can directly impact a pet’s emotional state. Outside noises can excite pets, therefore owners should work to reduce outside noise and offer calming sounds inside the house. As with the other senses, specific sounds can provide a calmer environment to stressed pets. These sounds include species specific music (set to the beat of the species’ resting heart rate), soft rock, and classical music. This can help calm both the pets and their owners.
Remember it is the disrupted routine caused by COVID-19 that has been the catalyst for the behavior changes. Consistency is key—for pets and humans. Try to keep a consistent schedule for every member of the household—human, canine, feline, or avian—as consistency is essential for the pet’s wellbeing.
These are but a few ideas for helping pet owners reduce the stress and anxiety in their dogs and cats during the pandemic and the resulting change in routine. Veterinary nurses play an important role in bridging communicating between veterinarians and pet owners regarding their pet’s behavior and triaging the “needs to be seen” from the “needs enrichment.”
More Coronavirus Coverage
- Siniscalchi M, d’Ingeo S, Quaranta A. Orienting asymmetries and physiological reactivity in dogs’ response to human emotional faces, Learning & Behavior 2018. DOI: 10.3758/s13420-018-0325-2.
- Lindblad-Toh K, Wade C M, Mikkelsen T S, et al. Genome sequence, comparative analysis and haplotype structure of the domestic dog. Nature 2005; 438 (7069), 803.
- Soproni K, Miklósi Á, Topál J, et al. Dogs’ (Canis familaris) responsiveness to human pointing gestures. Journal of Comparative Psychology 2002; 116(1), 27.
- Cuaya L V, Hernández-Pérez R, Concha L. Our faces in the dog’s brain: Functional imaging reveals temporal cortex activation during perception of human faces. PLOS ONE 2016; 11(3), e0149431.
- Dilks D D, Cook P, Weiller S K, et al. Awake fMRI reveals a specialized region in dog temporal cortex for face processing. PeerJ 2015; 3, e1115.
- Madson C. 10 Boredom Busters for Your Dog. Preventive Vet. https://www.preventivevet.com/dogs/boredom-busters-for-your-bored-dog. Accessed May 3, 2020.