The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound behavioural impact on many companion animals and presented unique challenges to owners and vets alike. In subsequent years, veterinary staff have found that these post-COVID behaviour challenges need to be addressed in order to provide support and care to patients and their owners.
What is the root of the problem?
The pandemic’s effect on pet behaviour can be attributed to three leading causes:
- The influx of “pandemic puppies” and other species, such as kittens
- Unrealistic owner expectations
- The lack of socialisation due to national lockdowns
Pandemic puppies and the perfect storm of increased pet ownership
Over the pandemic, there was a massive increase in pet ownership, especially among first-time dog owners, which was observed by a spike in new clients seeking registration. In fact, 24 percent of all owners have acquired their pets since the start of the pandemic, equating to 5.4 million companion animals (PDSA, 2022).
Unrealistic expectations from owners
During this time practices saw many clients who showed little understanding of animal behaviour or the function of veterinary practices. These owners were often reported as difficult to deal with or very demanding.
Furthermore, impulse purchases of young dogs went through the roof, and this group of “pandemic puppies” sadly missed out on the crucial early-life socialisation and experiences that are an instrumental part of behaviour development. Unsurprisingly, practices identified this cohort of puppies and owners as some of the most challenging.
A lack of socialisation in dogs can take place on many levels, and any lack of safe exposure to everyday domestic life experiences may result in difficulties coping with these stimuli and circumstances in later life. The socialisation period for young animals is a specific period of development that ends at roughly 12 weeks of age in dogs. The more barren and lacking in enrichment their early environment, the greater the impact on later-life behaviour.
Any lack of safe exposure to everyday domestic life experiences may result in difficulties coping with these stimuli and circumstances in later life
In the early days of the pandemic, puppies were not exposed to many everyday experiences, including meeting unfamiliar people and dogs, travelling in cars, being introduced to strange sights, sounds and smells in outdoor environments, or being left alone. These missed encounters may predispose the dogs to the development of separation anxiety and fear of new people or dogs, going to the vet or visiting new places. The stress these situations subsequently create can cause a dog to become withdrawn, shut down or reactive – barking and lunging to make the frightening things disappear, for example.
Vets need to advise their clients on how to properly address behavioural issues to reduce problem behaviours, such as withdrawal or reactiveness.
Vets need to advise their clients on how to properly address post-COVID behavioural issues to reduce problem behaviours, such as withdrawal or reactiveness
How can we deal with the challenges brought by COVID-19?
So, how can vets deal with these new behavioural challenges presented by COVID-19?
Training for veterinary practice staff
The staff who handle animals at the practice should be prepared for the potential stress levels that a visit to the vet can create for the pet. Suitable protocols, such as the traffic light system, need to be implemented. For example, in the aforementioned system, green means the patient has no problems with waiting, consultation or handling procedures, yellow means care is required for handling and red indicates that care is needed at all points. All reception, nursing and vet staff must be adequately trained in handling animals at each level.
Veterinary staff are often the first point of contact for owners looking to address behavioural issues. Engaging clients in dialogue to offer support and advice is essential when an animal displays anxiety or fear when young and problems first appear. But this comes back to the importance of training; if staff receive inadequate training, inaccurate information may be given.
Common examples of outdated ideas that are not evidence-based are the concept of dogs trying to “dominate” their human owners and the “pack leader” theory (Drews, 1993; Van Kerkhove, 2004). These ideas are disproven and promote punishment-based training, likely negatively affecting the owner–pet relationship. Damaging this relationship increases confusion and fear in the animal and can ultimately increase problem behaviours, such as aggression.
Referrals to a behaviourist
The services of a qualified behaviourist may be required to address the anxiety shown in some dogs due to poor socialisation. Veterinary staff can, for example, direct clients towards the resources that help them identify a suitable qualified behaviourist who uses ethical, evidence-based methods. When the services of a qualified behaviourist are required to address anxiety due to poor socialisation, the treatments offered will vary for each case. For example, full APBC members and ABTC practitioners are required to work with the veterinary team to ensure a holistic and ethical approach to treating behaviour problems.
Some approaches to addressing these post-COVID behaviour issues include teaching a dog to cope with a fear of unfamiliar people or dogs, or with being left alone through exposure at low levels (eg at a safe distance or for a very short time alone) to teach the dog to cope with their fear. This technique is done in very small steps and requires time and patience from owners. Getting a qualified behaviourist involved ensures the process moves at the dog’s pace to avoid pushing the dog into situations too difficult to cope with.
There may be a great need for owner education regarding the consistency and predictability required to create a stable home environment. Only reward-based interactions should be used – meaning no “telling off” or punishment. The desired behaviours are put on cue and reinforced so they occur more frequently.
There may be a great need for owner education regarding the consistency and predictability required to create a stable home environment
If the dog shows unwanted behaviours, the primary response is to teach alternative behaviours, which can then be rewarded. Improving confidence through reward-based training, using enrichment and mentally stimulating toys, puzzles and activities may be helpful.
The problem of post-COVID behaviour issues will not disappear overnight, and many “pandemic puppies” and other animals will have life-long behavioural issues. Over the coming years, vets and behaviourists must work together to ensure there is sufficient education for all staff, that proper processes are followed and humane evidence-based training methods are used. By doing so, we can minimise the lasting impacts of the pandemic on our companion animals and address this unfortunate situation to the best of our abilities.