Frequently asked questions during the restrictions

Last Updated: 27 May 2020

During lockdown, many dogs and cats are having to adapt to a disruptive and altered home environment. This can lead to stress and other behaviour problems. Here are some common scenarios and questions that pet owners have already been asking. It’s likely that your team are being asked these questions now, or will be in over the coming weeks.

The Vetoquinol team have partnered with Caroline Clark, a registered clinical animal behaviourist and qualified veterinary nurse. Caroline has shared some of her experiences alongside some answers and suitable advice you can give to your pet owners.

Author: Caroline Clark, Clinic Animal Behaviourist

RVN Cert. Ed, Post Graduate Diploma in Companion Animal Behaviour Counselling.
ABTC Registered Clinical Animal Behaviour Counsellor, APBC Full Member.

Important consideration

  • In all cases, it is important to rule out any medical conditions that may give rise to changes in behaviour. Given the present restrictions on face-to face veterinary consultations, a telephone consultation would be advisable.
  • The advice provided here does not constitute a full behaviour consultation. If needed, please seek further support where a full assessment can be made and a detailed history can be taken.
  • Children shouldn’t be left unattended with pets.

For cases that require professional input from a behaviourist, the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC) has a list of full members who offer remote telephone and video consultations.

Question topics

The answers

My nervous cat is now very withdrawn since my children have been off school. My children desperately want to be affectionate, but my cat seems to want to spend more time outside now. Shall I ask my children to avoid contact?

Answer: Social preferences vary between individuals, but most cats prefer high frequency, low intensity handling. Having whole families around, with disrupted routines and forced interactions is likely to raise stress levels, particularly for those cats that are prone to stress.

  • Do not force interactions with the cat: Cats like to retain a sense of control so being forcibly restrained or over-handled is a source of stress. Let the cat initiate and choose to make contact if it wants to.
  • Handling preferences: Most cats prefer short, gentle stroking around the head and cheeks.
    If the cat moves away – do not force further contact.
  • Give the cat multiple safe places: Elevated and secluded places provide the cat with a sense of
    security and hiding acts as a coping strategy when they are frightened or stressed.
    – Cat towers with platforms and hide-outs.
    – Shelving and furniture can be modified to make private, raised and secluded sites.
    – Cardboard boxes and paper-bags can be utilised as hides.
  • Teach the children to give the cat space and respect her desire to be left alone:
    It’s more likely your cat will approach your children if they do want to interact.

Since working from home my dog seems to be following me around the house. I'm worried that they will develop separation issues when I go back to work. What should I do to help?

Answer: This is something that behaviourists are concerned about too. It is important to provide owners with some sensible advice to ensure that their dogs will cope with being left alone once they return to work.

  • Wherever possible, stick to routines: Adhere to the same feeding times and amount of attention normally given.
  • Provide dogs with activities they can pursue alone: Activity feeders and toys.
  • Close doors: so the dog can’t continually follow and shadow family members.
  • Encourage the dog to settle in their own bed when owners are working.
  • Aim to leave your dog alone for at least 10 to 15 minutes every day.

I have read that I should play more with my cat during lockdown, but my cat isn't interested. Should I persevere?

Answer: Although play can be enriching, cats like choice and to be in control of their environment. Therefore, being forced to play can be counter-productive and stressful for some.

  • Provide toys that a cat can interact with independently: This might include interactive feeders (bought or homemade) and fur-lined, feathered and squeaky toys that induce predatory play.
  • Give the cat choice: Let them decide whether to play or not.
  • Rotate toys regularly: Cats soon get bored!
  • Never coerce or pursue a cat: If it chooses not to participate, leave it alone.

Our family dog, who is normally well behaved, has begun staring at us and barking until we let him out or give him our attention. It's worse when we are working and, although we've tried ignoring him, it seems to be getting worse.

Answer: Due to the fact that families are spending more time at home, it’s likely that dogs will be receiving quite a lot of attention. It’s easy to inadvertently reinforce attention-seeking behaviours by responding to their barking, pawing and vocalising.

  • Avoid using punishment: It’s still a form of attention! It’s far better (and kinder) to train behaviours that the owner wants the dog to perform. For example, settling on a bed or mat or responding to a recall.
  • Give attention to the dog when they exhibit desired behaviours: This will reinforce those behaviours instead of the unwanted ones.
  • Provide mentally enriching activities that the dog can do independently: Such as interactive feeding and scent games.

A cardboard box placed over a litter-tray can add to the cat’s privacy

Since we all began spending more time in the house, our young, lone family cat has become a bit hit and miss at using her litter tray. She has recently defaecated behind the settee in the lounge and I noticed a wet patch behind the TV. What should I do?

Answer: Assuming all medical conditions have been excluded and the owner hasn’t seen evidence of urine marking or spraying in lots of other locations, this sounds like a cat that has had her privacy affected.

  • Provide an additional litter tray: Cats should have one tray per cat plus one extra.
  • Provide more privacy: Cover one of the litter-trays to provide choice and make sure that the litter trays are placed in private locations, away from busy family thoroughfares.
  • Rule out any triggers: Sudden alterations in cleaning practices, the use of strong smelling chemicals and changing substrates can trigger litter tray aversions.

.Since setting up a make-shift office in the dining room, my neutered male cat has begun spraying urine around my work station. Are there any solutions to stop this behaviour?

Answer: Scent-marking, through facial and body rubbing establishes a familiar smell and provides security within a cat’s home territory. New items entering the home bring in unfamiliar smells and electrical appliances, when plugged in, can give off strong odours. In an attempt to appease themselves, and to restore their scent profile, some cats will use urine to over-mark new objects.

  • Address any underlying stress: indoor spraying can be the result of increased environmental stress. Therefore, make sure the owner provides an environment consistent with the cat’s species-specific needs.Discussions should include:
    – Respecting the cat’s need for privacy and a calm environment.
    – Giving the cat access to safe, secure places to hide and rest.
    – The importance of maintaining the cat’s scent profile in the home.
  • Scent marking new items: Expose new items to the cat’s scent profile (see harvesting).
  • Provide scratch areas: To allow the cat to deposit the scent from glands in their feet to their environment.
  • Avoid disrupting the cat’s scent profile: For example, over-zealous cleaning and strong-smelling
    products can obliterate the cat’s scent profile.

Harvesting and transferring feline scent to new objects

  1. Prepare several cotton cloths (a boiled and air-dried cotton pillow case cut into face-cloth sizes is ideal).
  2. During positive interactions with the cat, wrap a cloth around your hand and gently rub and collect odours from around the cat’s face and cheeks.
  3. If the cloth cannot be used immediately, it should be placed in a clean plastic sealed bag or plastic container and used within 1 hour.
  4. Transfer the cat’s scent by rubbing the cloth (containing the harvested odours) along the new object, concentrating on any sides and corners.
  5. This method can also be used after re-decorating or after intense bouts of house cleaning. Concentrate on areas that the cat is likely to rub against (e.g. corners of doors, walls and furniture).
  6. During periods of disruption, repeat this action at daily intervals to help restore and retain the cat’s scent profile.

Since lockdown, our 11 year old family dog seems to startle more easily and spends a lot of her time hiding under the kitchen table. My husband and I are working from home and are trying to occupy our 3 young boisterous children. How can I help my dog?

Answer: Hiding and being easily startled are signs of stress. Having young, active children at home all day will take its toll on our pets, especially the elderly.

  • Provide an additional litter tray: Give the dog their own space and somewhere it can rest undisturbed: A disruptive environment and an interrupted sleep pattern can lead to stress.
  • Create a den: To enhance the dog’s sense of security.
  • Education: Teach the children not to pursue the dog, never to disturb when it is asleep, or when in the den or eating.
  • Health and safety: Never leave children with the dog unless under adult supervision.

Since working from home we have had to reconfigure the house and use a couple of rooms for office space. After making these changes, our two indoor cats, who usually tolerate each other, have begun to have a few brief fights. What should we do?

Answer: Most indoor cats will tolerate each other provided they have sufficient resources and space. In many cases they time-share access to places and key resources within the home. However, if space and resources are limited, they may be under pressure to meet regularly which can lead to conflict and stress.

  • Provide multiple and separate environmental resources away from each other’s view: These include resting and sleeping sites, food and water stations, toileting areas, scratching
    facilities and toys.
  • Operate a time-sharing system for individual human-cat attention.
  • Make use of 3D space: To increase the surface area of the home.
  • Pre-empt conflict: Use remote, unobtrusive interruption methods such as rolling a toy across the room to distract and re-focus their attention on to something else.
  • Separate the cats immediately if there are repeated bouts of conflict: Refer the case to a registered behaviourist.

We only have a very small garden for our pet, so what can we do to address their excessive energy?

Answer: Mental enrichment is an effective alternative to physical exercise. It helps redirect a dog’s energy to more appropriate canine behaviours. Plus using their brains tires them out.

  • Use activity feeders and scatter feed: To make them work for their food ration.
  • Set up scent games: Harnessing the dog’s nose is a stimulating activity. Ideas include letting them sniff out food under plant-pots, inside cardboard boxes filled with rolled up newspaper or embedded in snuffle mats.
  • Play hide and seek games: Using toys hidden in the house and garden.
  • Teach some new tricks: Choosing ones that help in day to day life (e.g. teach a drop, settling on a mat, recall).

Cardboard boxes make inexpensive enrichment aids.

Life can be stressful for pets

Zylkene is a calming supplement that contains a natural ingredient derived from a protein in milk called casein that has clinically proven calming properties to help relax cats and dogs. It is a peptide (protein) molecule, well known to promote the relaxation of new-borns after breastfeeding.

Zylkene has become a valuable support for veterinary surgeons, behaviourists, nurses and pet owners for use in helping pets cope when facing unusual and unpredictable situations or before occasions such as a change in their normal environment.