6 questions pet owners are asking during the COVID-19 pandemic

6 questions pet owners are asking during the COVID-19 pandemic
Ziggy looks out the window of his Maplewood, New Jersey, home as his owner sews masks for health care workers. (Photo: Elsa/Getty Images)


Many pet owners are spending a lot more time at home these days, and they have lots of questions about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting their animals and their daily activities. Here are some answers.

Is my dog stressed out?

Your dog or cat didn't sign up to be a therapy pet, but they are likely helping shore up your mental health these days. You might think all that extra cuddling and petting is a great thing for them, but our pets definitely pick up on our emotions. When we're stressed, they can get stressed too.

Their routines have changed and they might act out behaviorally or with physical symptoms like vomiting or diarrhea.

"Getting into things they shouldn't is a top phone call we've been receiving," Dr. Heidi Sutcliffe of Norwell Veterinary Hospital told WBZ-TV. "Surfing counters, getting into the trash, destructive behavior, pent up energy and not being able to settle down are all signs they may be stressed."

To help keep your pet's world relatively normal, it's important to maintain your routines, certified dog trainer and behaviorist Susie Aga of Atlanta Dog Trainer tells MNN. Try to feed your pets and go for walks the same time you normally would. If you have kids and normally have playtime when the kids come home from school, keep that same time reserved for fun with your pet.

Can I still go to the vet (or should I)?

 Veterinarian Will Draper consults with a client with help from his dog, Frankie.

Veterinarian Will Draper consults with a client with help from his dog, Frankie. (Photo: The Village Vets)


It depends on what your pet needs. The American Veterinary Medical Association issued suggested strategies for veterinarians that include limiting in-patient appointment to emergencies and critical care. They suggested veterinarians abide by social distancing guidelines with humans (at least six feet) when discussing care.

Many practices are only allowing one client in the office at a time, while others are sending an employee — wearing a gown, mask and gloves — out to a car to pick up the pet. The doctor then calls the client to talk about a diagnosis and treatment options.

That's what veterinarian Will Draper of The Village Vets is doing at his three metro Atlanta practices. Staff veterinarians are seeing patients for time-sensitive issues like rabies vaccinations and critical surgeries, while putting off spays, neuters and annual visits.

"We're still seeing as much as we can within reason while still maintaining the balance of keeping our team and our clients healthy," Draper tells MNN.

He's also ramped up telemedicine, virtually seeing as many pets as he can for ailments like ear infections and rashes.

They try to keep all human clients out of the clinic but have many a handful of exceptions, most notably when pets have had to be euthanized.

"We've put a long IV in and will stand there six feet away while we give the medication," Draper says. "That way we can allow the owner to be there with their pet."

Can I still take my dog to day care or for grooming?

Technically, that depends on where you live. It seems that most cities, states and counties with stay-at-home or other ordinances requiring people to only go out for essential reasons don't consider grooming to be essential. The exception would be if a dog was heavily matted and needed to be shaved for medical reasons, Draper suggests.

Doggy day care centers are typically considered essential, along with animal shelters and boarding kennels because they serve essential workers, among others, who need a place for their pets to go while they work.

"It's really nice that we're able to offer those services to people who work odd hours, people in the health care industry, people in manufacturing, firemen, police, things like that," owner Amy Forrester of Stay Dog Day Care and Boarding in Cleveland told News 5 Cleveland. "I would say about 80% of the dogs that are being dropped off right now belong to health care workers and other essential workers that are still going to work every day, and then about 20% are like, 'Hey man, get my dog out of the house.'"

How can I prevent my dog from getting separation anxiety?

dog on elevated bed

 Let your dog practice coping skills by having him 'place' on a bed or mat. (Photo: Mary Jo DiLonardo)

You're spending a lot more quality time with your pet than normal and you both probably enjoy it immensely. But when the world rights itself and things go back to normal, it's going to be tough — especially if you have a dog that has become used to you being there all day. If you go back to your old pre-coronavirus routine, there's a chance your pet will develop separation anxiety.

There are things you can do now to prevent that from happening, says trainer Aga.

She suggests teaching your dog a "place" command on a mat, rug or bed. Your dog can do whatever he wants on that bed (sit, roll, lie down) as long as he stays on it. Start with a minute, then let him hop off. Then add a minute or so each time. Leave the room, come back in, pick up something, all while your dog is on his special spot.

Another option is to put up a see-through baby gate, keeping your dog in a nearby room as you walk past often. Give them interactive toys or peanut butter-filled Kongs to keep them busy. Start with just a few minutes at a time. If you don't have the room and live in a studio apartment, try stepping out the front door for a minute or two.

"You're teaching your dog how to have coping skills," Aga says. "Eventually they'll just relax and lay down, knowing they're OK."

It's also important to keep routines. Try to feed your pets and go for walks the same time you normally would. If you have kids and normally have playtime when the kids come home from school, keep that same time reserved for fun with your pet.

If you go for walks, sometimes go without your dog so he can practice being alone. And when you get home, don't make a big deal about being reunited.

"Downplay arrivals," Aga says. "It's a good five minutes before I acknowledge my dogs when I get home. In that high excitement, they need to be taught coping skills and how to deal with isolation."

And it's also OK to have other alone time too.

"Your dog has to learn that it's acceptable to close the bathroom door," Aga says. "It's really about teaching them to be able to be OK by themselves while you're home with them."

Can pets get or spread COVID-19?

There have been reports that two dogs in Hong Kong and a cat in Belgium were infected with COVID-19. However, infectious disease experts and human and animal health organizations agree there's no evidence the pets spread the virus to people.

The World Health Organization currently advises that there is no evidence to suggest that dogs or cats can be infected with the new coronavirus. The World Organisation for Animal Health says there's no evidence that dogs play a role in the spread of this disease or that they become sick. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agrees, stating "At this time, there is no evidence that companion animals including pets can spread COVID-19."

Experts believe the pets might have tested positive due to "environmental contamination" of their snouts. The germs could have been living on the animal's nose or mouth, just like they can live on other surfaces like a doorknob or a countertop.

Is there a dog food shortage?

Early on, when people were stocking up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer, there were reports of some people buying pet food by the pallet. Now, some pet owners report having a hard time finding food for their animals. Some people say they've had to switch brands because they can't find their pet's usual food in stock anywhere. Others report driving all over to find specific brands. Even online pet retail giant Chewy has a homepage note saying, "Due to high demand, current delivery times are running considerably longer than usual on food and supplies."

But call around or look online. Most big pet supply retailers and independent pet stores offer curbside pickup and local delivery. Anecdotal accounts find that it often takes just a few days for most places to restock. Some brands take longer than others, so ask when you're calling around.

If you decide to switch foods, don't wait until you're already out of your pet's regular food. Do it gradually, substituting a small portion of the new food for the old food each day.

Mary Jo Dilonardo, 1 April 2020