The Pandemic Threw Off Your Pet’s Routine, Too—Here’s What to Do About It

updated Oct 22, 2020
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Not long ago, I swapped the placement of my dog’s food and water bowls, which typically go in specific spots on the bone-shaped mat that catches the water she spills. She approached the bowls and walked away. I was too busy and anxious to notice the mistake so, for about an hour, I worried about why she wasn’t eating and tried to coax her with food. Then I realized my error; after switching the bowls, she ate her food in about 90 seconds. 

Sybbie, who’s a 6-year-old lab mix, isn’t a finicky or picky dog—at least she wasn’t before the COVID-19 pandemic. My partner, Dave, and I have been working from home since March, and at least one of us is pretty much always around. This is a far cry from the busy schedules we led pre-pandemic, when Sybbie’s dog walker would help us out on days we spent mostly away from home. Since then, she’s been following me everywhere (even to the bathroom), waiting by the front door for Dave to get back from a run and, worst, occasionally acting aggressively by growling at him when he tries to kiss me. 

“Animals are creatures of habit, and when we disrupt those routines, they can manifest in changes,” Dr. Megan Nunemacher, a veterinarian at Upper East Veterinary Center in New York City, tells Apartment Therapy. 

A shift in routines occurred ’round the world once cities and states began issuing stay-at-home orders and many workers set up home offices. Seemingly overnight, everything changed for people—and also for animals, who can easily sense the strains their humans are navigating. 

While having their people home all the time is essentially a canine dream come true, says Dr. Joseph Wakshlag, a professor of nutrition and sports medicine at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, New York, it’s not always as ideal as it might seem. When pet parents are under duress, pets can sense it and respond. 

“We love them for being so attuned to our emotions, but we need to be aware of the effects of our distress on our pets,” Wakshlag says. 

Nunemacher agrees, pointing out that some dogs can sense when people with diabetes have low blood sugar, or if a person is about to experience a seizure. Those senses can also pick up on the understandable stress and anxieties born of a pandemic, as well as job loss, loneliness, and other stressors. “We are very emotionally bonded with our pets so they’re going to pick up on our anxieties,” she says.

Credit: Minette Hand

What kind of new habits could my pet develop?

As owners notice changes in their pets’ behaviors, veterinarians and trainers are getting calls about myriad concerns. Dogs may bark for attention, act out on leash with aggressive behavior, and exhibit separation anxiety when humans do leave the house without them. And cats, too, might experience a tough time adjusting, with concerns including atypical scratching and hissing, over-grooming, not using the litter box, and demanding more attention.

With these behavioral changes come complicated feelings. Sarah Bailey, who lives alone in Brooklyn, New York, and works for an investment bank, says each of her 3-year-old rescue cats, Pumpkin and Boo, has taken on its own behavioral change over the course of the pandemic. Bailey started working from home at the beginning of March, and Bo, a black and white tuxedo cat who was previously never a lap cat, began begging for cuddles in August. Meanwhile, Pumpkin just wants to be held and meows until he gets what he wants. He’d never made a sound before the pandemic. 

“I think they think I’m part of the apartment furniture,” Bailey says. “I do honestly love it because they have kept me company while I’ve been alone, especially early in quarantine, but I do worry about whenever things maybe normalize more and how they’ll adjust.” 

What should I do if my pet develops a new habit?

Nunemacher says the first thing to do if you notice a behavior change is to call your vet, who can help you rule out any medical issues that could be causing the behavior. A rudimentary physical exam is a starting point, as it measures complete blood work, a chemistry screen, thyroid levels, and a urinalysis. She adds that “a physical exam can go a long way because even very attentive owners can frequently miss medical problems that might be causing behavioral problems. And pain can be a big trigger for an anxious or aggressive behavior because pain hurts.” 

If your pet’s sudden mood swing is not a medical issue, that’s a good thing, but there’s still a behavioral issue that needs to be addressed. The longer the behavior is allowed, the more it becomes learned and standard. Your vet may recommend working with a trainer or a behavior specialist, or even using medications while retraining your pet to cope with the for-now normal. 

Amanda Gagnon, a dog trainer and dog behavior consultant based in New York City, says she has gotten calls about all kinds of behavioral issues since the start of the pandemic, but one in particular stands out: More and more dogs have taken to request barking, which is when a dog barks and makes other noises when their humans are on phone calls or are otherwise busy. Separation anxiety has also been a big issue, both for pets whose owners started going back to work after a few months or became more comfortable leaving home and their pets, as well as those who were adopted mid-pandemic by working-from-home professionals and have rarely spent time alone as a result. 

My state is reopening and I’m going back to work. Is my pet going to be okay?

Another factor that makes the COVID-19 pandemic tricky for everyone, including pets, is how people are adjusting back to a new “normal,” albeit at different paces. While parts of the U.S. and the world are still stressing the need for shelter-in-place orders, others are encouraging everyone to head back to the office, with inevitable changes to come. Whatever your timeline, Dr. Katy Nelson, a senior veterinarian at Chewy, suggests you make it gradual and start as soon as possible. 

“You can start by keeping to an approximate schedule for meals and playtime,” she tells Apartment Therapy. “If you’re working from home and are going to be going back to work, do your best to keep playtime to a minimum during those work hours, even at home.” 

Gagnon suggests beginning by running errands around the time you will leave for work every day, which will help your pet acclimate to being left alone at that time. Keep yourself from taking your pet everywhere with you and schedule time when they’ll be alone in the house by themselves. You can also add a positive element to the experience, like offering a frozen marrow bone or a stuffed interactive toy before you go, as well as making sure your pet has easy access to something that smells like you as a soothing comfort. 

If you’re looking to keep some elements of your pet’s new routine even while you’re away, you can lean into gadgets that help retain a sense of timing for them. Nelson suggests investing in an automatic feeder to help schedule meals, and if your home has access to a safe and secure outdoor space, it might be worth installing a dog door for regular fresh air and bathroom breaks. You can also look into tech-y pet cameras, many of which dispense treats on a human’s command, which may ease separation anxiety on both ends. 

As the number of coronavirus cases in your area rises and falls, your schedule might be affected or altered over and over again—and so, too, will your pet’s. Through it all, continuing to adhere to routine as much as possible is the best bet for your animal’s mental wellness. 

Gagnon says that pet culture shifts whenever human culture shifts, and if humans are okay overall, pets likely will be, too. This is easier said than done, especially when nearly one in five adults report that their mental health is worse than at the same time last year, and for a host of understandable reasons. Even so, taking care of yourself is also taking care of your pet—and curling up together at the end of a long day can do wonders for both of you.