5 ways to transition pets to a COVID-vaccinated world

By Karen Sueda Jun 01,2021
Dr. Karen Sueda, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, gives tips to help your pets transition to the new normal and avoid the causes of separation anxiety.
As more and more Americans are vaccinated for COVID and businesses and workplaces open up in a return to the new new normal, it’s understandable that your pets might feel a little left behind. The number of leash walks and potty breaks might be fewer for dogs. Lap time and play time might be a little shorter for cats.

Some pets won’t mind these changes and will quickly adjust. But pets adopted during the pandemic don’t know what normal looks like. Though to be fair, I’m not sure if any of us know what it will look like yet.

If you’re contemplating a big change to your and your pet’s routine, here are a few proactive steps you can take to help your pet adjust to your new schedule. 

No. 1: Ease into new routines
Think about possible changes to your daily and weekly schedule before they happen. When have you been home, and when will you now be gone? 

Once you start spending more time away from home, remembering to scoop your cat’s litterbox may fall off your radar. It may help to set an alarm until scooping it once or twice a day becomes a routine part of your schedule. If your cat was used to playing with you all day, make sure to try new toys and offer enrichment opportunities, such as food puzzle toys or window perches, around the house so your favorite feline can stay busy while you’re out.

What about your dog’s potty schedule? Dogs often don’t have the luxury of heading outside whenever they feel the urge. You can help by making sure to slowly get your dog used to less frequent dog walks and potty breaks. If they’re options, hire a dog walker or ask a friend or family member who’s free to stop by for a quick walk and potty break. 

What happens when social distancing ends? Will your pets see more people and other animals on walks or visiting the home? People might want to stop and pet your dog on walks, or your cat may be unaccustomed to having friends over for board game night. Make sure these are positive experiences for your pets by pairing these interactions with treats, toys or other things your pet enjoys. Since these new experiences may be a little intimidating for your pet, observe them closely for fearful or anxious body language so you can take these introductions more slowly if they need time to adjust.

No. 2: Watch for signs of stress and anxiety
You may know the obvious signs your dog is fearful: ears back, tail tucked, cowering and moving away from a frightening situation. But what about signs your dog is growing worried? These may include lip licking outside of normal eating or exaggerated yawning when they aren’t sleepy. These are the dog equivalent of people nervously playing with their hair, tapping their feet or jingling the change in their pocket.

Worried cats might scratch at themselves more than usual or rub against, sniff or move away from a new person, pet or object. These are normal behaviors, but they’re a little bit of a question mark when you see them pop up with something new in the environment.

When your pet is stressed, it’s a good time to redirect their attention or move them away from a stressful situation.
Karen Sueda

No. 3: Get help early
The sooner, the better when it comes to behavioral issues. If your cat or dog is house soiling, destructive when you’re away, or exhibiting new or unusual behaviors, visit your family veterinarian first. Behavioral problems can sometimes stem from underlying physical illness causing pain or discomfort.

The biggest question that has come up for me in helping pet owners manage COVID-pandemic-related behavior issues has been separation anxiety. Signs can include destructive behavior, especially around doors and windows, house soiling or excessive vocalization—the kind that has your neighbors leaving notes on your door telling you your dog was barking all day. Less noticeable signs may include excessive pacing or whining or not eating or drinking while you’re gone. If you can, record video of your cat or dog’s behavior as you leave and after you’re gone with a stationary camera, smartphone or even a laptop or desktop camera aimed at where the behavior begins. It helps when veterinarians can see the anxious pet in action.

Your veterinarian can also help diagnose behavioral issues and make recommendations to ease your pet’s anxiety. These may include training and behavior modification exercises, referral to a positive-reinforcement dog trainer, over-the-counter products (like calming pheromone diffusers or anti-anxiety supplements) or more powerful anti-anxiety veterinary medications that may help. Your primary care veterinarian may recommend a board-certified veterinary behaviorist like me who specializes in treating behavior problems in animals. Similar to human psychiatrists, veterinary behaviorists address both physical and mental wellbeing in pets and can provide a second line of assistance when dogs and cats require more extensive behavioral plans and pharmaceutical help.

No. 4: Create positive associations
Regardless of whether your pet experiences behavior problems now, it never hurts to create positive associations around changes. Give your pet treats before you leave. Offer them their favorite toys. That way when the keys jingle, the shoes go on and the garage door groans, your pets think something good is going to happen, not that their world is ending because you’re headed out the door.

If the issue is the world outside, where your dog is facing a lack of social distancing and people want to get closer, ask your dog to sit and give a treat and some attention when your dog is relaxed and ready. If your dog is nervous, it’s okay to run interference and ask strangers (politely) to toss your dog treats from a distance, rather than trying to pet him. If your cat tends to run under the bed when guests arrive, try coaxing out over time. Put some treats under the bed. If those are eaten, try putting them out in the hallway. Then maybe you can let people offer them next time they visit. The goal is to associate company with food or play time with the laser pointer or wand toy, not as fearful events. Don’t force cats, however, to engage with scary people or things. Just try to help your cat see over time that they’re not as scary as they seemed.

You’re trying to tip the scales of a new event from neutral to happy, not trying to spend time down the road fighting to change a negative experience into a neutral one.

No. 5: Get a post-pandemic, pre-back-to-work checkup
Take this chance to make an appointment with your veterinarian for a preventive-care visit. We’re all going to get really busy very quickly (if we aren’t already), so get an appointment in the books now for a physical exam, necessary vaccines and a look at your pet’s blood work to screen for problems. 

As you worry about leaving your cat or dog home longer alone, you can help them get off to a great start and a new routine on the “right paw” with a clean bill of health.

Dr. Karen Sueda is a board-certified veterinary behaviorist withy VCA West Los Angeles Animal Hospital. Her special interests include feline behavior, canine anxiety disorders and the human-animal bond, which explores how and why you and your pet make each other happier and healthier. She credits her cat Tyler for teaching her more about feline behavior and training than any textbook, especially when it comes to litter box issues. That’s right: Tyler has tried different kitty litters to find the best one so your cat might not have to! Dr. Sueda’s favorite food? Anything in the “genre of chocolate.”

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Karen Sueda
Karen Sueda
VCA West Los Angeles Animal Hospital
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Some pets won’t mind the changes and will quickly adjust. But pets adopted during the pandemic don’t know what normal looks like.
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