Q&A with Carolyn Menteith, Trainer and Behaviourist

At this time of year, pet owners may notice behaviour changes in their pets due to a number of reasons such as bonfire night.

Here Trainer and Behaviourist at Agria Pet Insurance, Carolyn Menteith, shares insight into how to support anxious pets following lockdown and the type of behaviour changes pet owners may notice.

How will lockdown have affected our pets?

It’s easy to think of lockdown as being a negative thing for the animals that share our lives – but I think it is a great opportunity to re-look at our relationship with them and consider where we can make changes to keep them healthier and happier in the future.

First ask yourself honestly is your dog or cat happier in lockdown? In the case of dogs, the answer is often yes. In many cases, they have been getting more company, more exercise and more contact with their owner – all the things dogs thrive on. Once you recognise this – and become aware of the effect your pre lockdown work or life pattern has been having on your dog – you can start planning changes so as to keep your dog in this much more positive mood state in the future. This might be more working from home – or if that is impossible, it may mean finding a reliable daily dog walker who can give your dog what they need while you are at work.

Cats aren’t quite so clear cut. Some are highly social and bonded to their owners and so they have loved the extra company and having people around to pander to their every wish. For others however the noise, bustle and activity of a busy family house where everyone has been at home for months can be extremely stressful. In any busy household, it is important to give cats an ‘escape route’ where they can get away somewhere comfortable and quiet when it all gets too much – baby gates across a quiet room can be ideal for this as can access to heights.

Both dogs and cats (especially puppies and kittens) will suffer if they do not get enough sleep and as a result of lockdown, behaviourists have seen increases in reactivity, stress, and aggression cases that have arisen through households being so busy with everyone at home that the dogs and cats are just not able to get their usual amount of sleep. Our animals are just like us in this regard – and you know how fractious you get if you are sleep-deprived.

What changes in behaviour may pet owners see at this time of year?

Traditionally this is a time of year where there are three issues that affect pet behaviour. The first is one that affects dogs – and that is the weather. With the onset of shorter days and often wet, grim weather, many owners exercise their dogs less, giving them shorter or fewer walks. This can give rise to boredom, frustration, and hyperactivity. If you know this tends to be you, find ways to make up for the lack of ‘out and about’ time with training sessions, enrichment activities and games.

It is also a time of craziness in many households – with Halloween and Christmas coming up. These can all affect our pets – and then of course this is the season of fireworks…

How can we help our pets during stressful times such as fireworks season?

While some animals have no problems at all with fireworks, it is estimated that around half of all dogs show signs of noise phobia and fear at the almost endless bangs and crashes that accompany this time of year. It’s also thought that up to a third of lost companion animals are as a result of fleeing from the noise of fireworks.

The best way to deal with noise phobias is to not have them develop at all – with breeders and new owners introducing their puppies and kittens to noises almost from birth, and owners continuing that in a controlled way through their lives. Hindsight however is a great thing – and even with the best starts, an extreme or traumatic exposure to fireworks can result in a phobia developing at any time.

For most companion animals, the best you can do is minimise the stresses as well you can. Make sure they don’t have to go out once it gets dark – so make sure your dog is well exercised and has been to the toilet before fireworks are likely to start. Try and make sure cats are safely indoors. Have the TV, radio or music on to try and mask the sounds a little – and build a safe, comfortable den near you where your pet can retreat to hide if they need to. A covered, lined crate works well.

If your dog isn’t too worried, games, treats or training exercises may help to give them something else to focus on – but if they are too fearful to be able to think of anything else or take treats, allow them to go and do whatever they need to but be close to them to give comfort where you can.

How does stress and anxiety differ in cats and dogs?

Stress and anxiety is different in dogs and cats and it is different in different individuals. Nearly every behaviour problem has its roots in stress, fear or anxiety – whether that is aggression, noise phobias, separation-related behaviour problems, destructive behaviour, inappropriate toileting, reactivity or indeed displaying what looks like depression or ‘closing down’ (losing interests in the things they used to enjoy). If you are seeing behaviour problems in your animal – whether canine or feline – you can be sure that there will be stress and anxiety there are well. Behaviour is just a symptom!

If pet owners notice any changes in behaviour of their pets, what should they do?

If owners see any changes of behaviour in their animals that give them cause for concern, the first stop is their vet. Sudden changes often have a medical cause and so a vet will either be able to diagnose that or rule it out. After that, find an accredited experienced behaviourist who can help.

How important is it to insure pets, especially older animals?

Insurance is important for pets at all stages of life as it gives owners the peace of mind that they can afford to give their companions they very best care no matter what the future holds. There is no NHS for pets and so as animals age, treatment to keep them healthy and happy can be unexpectedly expensive.

For more tips and advice visit www.agriapet.co.uk