Q&A with Dr Tammie King

During the pandemic, the rise in pet ownership was dramatic, with a reported 17 million homes in the UK owning a pet.

Dr Tammie King, Applied Behaviour Technical Leader at Waltham Petcare Science Institute, Mars Petcare answers our questions about the changes in behaviour of our four-legged friends following the pandemic:

How has the pandemic/lockdown changed our relationships with our pets?

As we navigated the last couple of years, we spent considerably more time with our pets in comparison to life before lockdowns. Many people faced prolonged periods of isolation and looked upon pets for companionship and comfort, entertainment and stress relief. Whether distracting us from the news, getting us out for stress-relieving walks where we encountered other people and animals, or simply giving us the companionship we craved, pets made a vital impact during the pandemic.

The Mars Petcare State of the Pet Nation report reveals that 82% of pet owners in the UK believe they suffer less with problems such as loneliness and depression thanks to the companionship pet ownership brings. It also shows pets are now very much part of the family, with 72% of UK pet owners referring to themselves as their pet’s ‘mummy or daddy’.

Pet owners have got to understand their pets’ behaviours and habits much better – such as the time of day they prefer to nap or when they like to be walked or petted – all the small cues that communicate their needs and emotions. Behaviours which may have been missed before are now obvious to many pet owners as they learn their pet better and can respond to their needs. By recognising and understanding these subtle behavioural cues and changes in their pets, owners are more likely to notice if their pet becomes ill or injured and when to seek veterinary care or behavioural support. Many people are now increasingly mindful of their pet’s wellbeing and what they can do to make them happier and healthier.

On the flipside, people have also been made aware of some behaviours their pets exhibit that are problematic or undesirable, and these can impact the human-pet relationship. It is important that pet owners recognise that pets don’t behave in this manner out of spite, they are simply doing what works for them. Seek veterinary advice and credible behavioural support if necessary. When choosing a behaviourist, look for practitioners that are registered members of professional associations that meet current scientific and evidence-based behaviour and training standards, for example:

At a time when many people have been working from home and often on their own for long periods of time, pets have stood in as colleagues, occasionally interrupting too! People have got used to spending all day with their pets and now many want to continue to be with them, people enjoy having the flexibility to take the dog for a walk at lunch time or spend a break in the day cuddling their cat. Many pet parents would also like to see pet-friendly spaces in the workplace, shops, restaurants and when they travel. It’s great that people want to spend so much time with their pets, but we need to be considerate of our pets needs and whether they also enjoy the interaction and environment. A relationship based on understanding and trust is key for both species to thrive.

Dr Tammie King

Do you think lockdown has impacted our pets’ dependency on us?

In some instances, lockdown has increased our pets’ dependency on us as they are now used to having their owners around them on a day-to-day basis, strengthening the human-animal bond more than ever before. This is their new normal. Many pets have become used to their needs being taken care of on a more immediate basis than before lockdown, when many pet parents were out at work. Some pets are also likely to have become more attached to their caregivers which may make it a difficult transition if owners are beginning to spend more time away from their pets.

The pandemic also meant many pets have not experienced proper socialisation and an introduction to various new environments and stimuli. Now the world is starting to open again, pets will need gradual socialisation and exposure to new situations. It is our responsibility to support them as they may experience stress and fear in these novel environments, especially in crowds of people or new places. Pets depend on us to recognise how they may be feeling by observing and acknowledge their body language. We can then act accordingly and support them as they encounter unfamiliar scenarios, people and other animals.

What are the biggest mistakes you see people make when they get a new pet?

The biggest mistakes I see are underestimating the responsibility, cost and time commitment that pet ownership entails and making sure the animal is the right choice for them, their family and, ultimately, considering how the pet will be affected as a new member of the family.

Things to consider before getting a pet:

  • Why do you want a pet?
    • Consider your motivation for getting a pet to help understand if it is a good idea for you. Because “they look cute” is not a good enough reason. Avoid impulsive decisions which can lead to impulse purchasing/acquisition. Important to take potential pet ownership seriously and decide if it is the right thing for you (and the pet!)
    • Be objective. Try and take emotion out of it. Rescuing a pet (like a dog or cat) is a wonderful thing to do and no doubt makes you feel good, but it must be right for you and the pet
  • Your lifestyle
    • How much time do you spend at home? What type of pet would best suit you and your lifestyle? Do you move to a new house often? Do you go on long holidays abroad?
    • How much spare time do you have (for training/exercising/grooming etc)? Do you have the time & willingness to engage with your pet over the course of its entire lifetime?
    • What is your household like? Do you live alone or with family? Young or older children? Elderly family members? Other pets?
    • Do you rent or own your home? Will your landlord agree? Neighbours with pets? Have you considered damage that may occur to your home, such as from a chewing puppy? Do you have expensive décor (carpets/furniture etc)?
    • Do you or any household members have pet-related allergies?
    • How much physical space do you have in your home? Small/large living space? Apartment? House? Enclosed/secure backyard etc.
    • What type of pet personally appeals to you? Will other family members like them too?
    • Are their reputable pet friendly facilities nearby (dog parks, boarding, day care, vets, groomers etc)?
    • If you decide YES to a pet – consider when the best time is to get your pet. Can you take some annual leave? Kids at school or home? It’s important to lay down proper training foundations to help new pet adjust to your lifestyle.
  • Your time commitment
    • Do you have time to interact with your pet (e.g. walking/training/general husbandry/affection/ social interaction – for social species)? Does the species in question need to be group housed – e.g. chickens/rabbits/rodents etc? Pets can be a long-term commitment. Small dogs and cats can live up to 15+ years
    • If you have a dog, are you willing to walk/socialise your pet every day?
  • The financial impact
    • Cost of the pet
    • Veterinary care (medical bills, routine vaccinations, parasite control, neutering etc.)
    • Pet insurance
    • Grooming
    • Boarding/catteries
    • Training, day care
    • Associated pet items e.g. pet food, toys collars, leads, litter, bedding, bowls, treats, enrichment items (scratching posts, digging pits, cat runs etc. Dependent on pet how much equipment you may need etc.)
  • Do your research (be informed)
    • What sort of pet are you interested in? Find out more about these animals – talk to others who have them, meet them, spend time and to really establish if this is the pet for you. If it’s a particular dog breed or breed type, learn more about them – their characteristics, potential health issues, speak to breeders and visit rescue organisations to get a good overview both good and bad. Read about different pet species and their requirements. It is important to become knowledgeable so you can make an informed decision that will be best for you and the pet in the long run
    • Some considerations – male/female, neutered/entire, young/juvenile/adult/senior, pure breed/mixed breed, breed type, hair type and length, size of pet, temperament inc. activity level etc.
  • Ways to adopt a pet (some recommendations)
    • Consider first what type of pet you think will be most suitable, based on your available finances, time commitment and lifestyle and then do (some more) your research
    • If you are getting a pet from a breeder (make sure they are reputable): https://www.thekennelclub.org.uk/dog-breeding/the-kennel-club-assured-breeders/:
      • Ask lots of questions and be prepared to answer questions
      • Visit the puppy/kitten (see the mother, littermates and possibly relatives)
      • Avoid meeting outside the premises. View the conditions the pup/kitten is raised in, as well as their health/appearance and temperament. They should be happy and confident
      • Ask to see the results of health testing of the breeding stock. View vaccination/worming/microchipping certificates and pedigree (if relevant)
      • Puppies and kittens shouldn’t leave for a new home until 8 weeks old
      • Take your time. Visit more than once if you need to
    • Be aware of online ads. Puppy smugglers often advertise through these media
    • Re-home a pet from friends/family or rehoming/rescue organisation (e.g. Dogs Trust, Battersea, Cats Protection, RSPCA etc).
    • Consider fostering a pet to provide you with an opportunity to see if owning a specific pet is the right choice for both you and the animal

What behavioural changes should pet owners look out for when returning to work?

As people start returning to work and activities that keep them away from home for longer stretches of time, pet owners should be aware of any behavioural changes in their pets. It’s another period of change that both pets and people are having to adapt to, with some coping differently to others. Some find the transition overwhelming, especially those pets adopted during the pandemic who have only known a life where their people are always home. Others may relish the alone time once more and a quieter living space. Every pet is an individual and it is imperative people observe how their dog and/or cat is behaving as changes in their routine occur. Separation-related behaviours are common responses to being left alone for many pets. These can range from mild boredom and destructiveness to severe anxiety where pets experience extreme distress, which may require veterinary prescribed medication and intensive behaviour therapy.

Keep an eye out for pacing, unsettled behaviour, barking, whining, whimpering, miaowing, avoidance, hiding, inappetence, destructiveness or other behaviours that suggest your pet is feeling stressed. If in doubt, set up a video camera to record your pet when you are not at home, or ask the neighbours if they hear anything. This will help you understand how your pet is coping and whether you can speed up or if you need to slow down the transition. Don’t scold a pet that reacts negatively while you’re away — this can increase their anxiety and damage the relationship you have with your pet.

What are the most common pet behaviours that identify a problem, but owners often miss?

Changes in behaviour are often the first sign of illness, disease or discomfort which may lead to more obvious signals that your pet is in pain – to begin you might simply notice that your pet is ‘just not itself.’

Changes in behaviour that may indicate signs of discomfort include:

  • An increase or decrease in activity level
  • Altered mobility (lameness, movement)
  • Increased sleeping or a change in sleeping habits
  • Unusual aggression
  • Anti-social behaviour
  • Nervousness
  • A change in appetite
  • Altered elimination patterns
  • Changes in other behaviours (e.g., licking or scratching)

How can owners reduce any stress for pets when returning to work?

Even if your pet coped well with being home alone before the pandemic, they also acclimatised to a new normal: their human at home all the time. Refamiliarizing these pets with a routine will help ease the transition. If you adopted a new pet during the pandemic, it’s possible your pet has never experienced any extended time away from their people. You can help alleviate potential anxiety in pets with a little preparation.

Here are seven top tips to help prepare your pet for some time alone as you return to work:

  • Spend regular time apart. Try not to make an abrupt transition to spending lots of time away from home. Instead, start with small separations, like closing your pet in a separate room for a short period of time or leaving to go for a drive. Be sure to start with brief absences and gradually building up the time you are apart. Be mindful of how your pet is behaving and make sure they are relaxed in your absence
  • Minimize the fuss. You want to convey to your pet that your absence isn’t a big deal — that they don’t have to worry about being apart and that you aren’t worried either. Don’t sneak out but avoid dramatic or emotional hellos or goodbyes. Make departing and arriving seem natural and not notable
  • Monitor for stress and anxiety. As you practice short separations from your pet, consider setting up a camera to watch how they react while you’re gone. Keep an eye out for pacing, barking, whimpering, salivating, destructiveness or other stress-related behaviours. This will help you understand how your dog is coping and whether you can speed up or need to slow down the transition
  • Create a safe haven. Make a space in your home where your dog or cat feels safe, comfortable and protected. Leave some tasty treats or a favourite toy when you leave
  • Develop a predictable routine. Just like people, pets like consistency. They need to know they can count on their next walk, play time or meal. Establishing a consistent routine — one that you can keep up in the future — will help make the transition easier. Also leave them with something to do when you are gone so they have some choice in how they spend their time. Food dispensing toys are great enrichment items and can entertain pets in your absence
  • Get some exercise together. There’s nothing like a fun activity or game before a period of alone time. Exercise can help them expend pent up energy, engage their minds and improve their mood (and yours!) Cats and dogs are naturally more active morning and evening, so these are ideal times to engage in some exercise together
  • Ask for advice and help. If you find your pet is really struggling with separation, reach out for support. Family or friends might be able to help pet-sit or break up alone time with drop-in visits. You can engage a dog walker to provide a midday visit or take your dog to a day-care during the day while working on separation issues. If you and your pet require more specialised support, reach out to a qualified pet behaviourist.