Pet behaviour

During the pandemic, animal welfare organisations and veterinary professionals have identified two main areas of concern for emerging behavioural problems in our pets: separation related issues and lack of socialisation opportunities.

Lockdown restrictions have inevitably increased the amount of time that owners spend at home. Many pets will have appreciated this but others may have needed space and more time alone. As lockdowns start to ease and owners begin to spend more time away from home again, those pets who have become accustomed to being with us constantly may find it difficult to adjust back to being left alone, putting them at risk of not being able to cope when alone and developing separation related problems.

Our survey found that 22% of dog owners (equating to 2.1 million dogs) and 17% of cat owners (equating to 1.7 million cats) who had acquired their pet before March 2020 reported that their pets have shown new behaviours since March 2020. This includes 5% of dog owners who have seen new signs of distress when their pet has been left alone. 18% of dog owners who obtained their pet after March 2020 report that they are showing signs of distress when left alone – these dogs may never have experienced longer periods of time alone.

5% of dog owners who had acquired their pet before March 2020 reported that their pet was spending more time in quiet areas of the home.

Changes in behaviour

What have owners done about pet behaviour?

Young pets purchased during lockdown restrictions may have missed the opportunity for vital early socialisation. This can result in problem behaviours, especially as these pets approach adolescence. 27% of dog owners and 34% of cat owners who obtained their pet after March 2020 report that they are showing behaviours that could be related to a lack of socialisation. For dogs this includes showing signs of fear (15%), and growling, snapping or biting unfamiliar dogs (11%), owners/carers (3%), or another household dog (2%). For cats, this includes an increase in timid or nervous behaviour (16%), hiding away (11%), and growling, biting or swiping their owners (10%) or unfamiliar people (3%).

Interestingly, a significantly higher proportion of dogs acquired before March 2020 who are not registered with a vet have shown new signs of aggression and reactivity* (14%) since the pandemic, in comparison with those who are registered with a vet (5%). Potential explanations for this could be that owners not registered with a vet would not have access to advice from veterinary professionals about helping dogs adjust to change, or that dogs who are predisposed to being anxious may be less likely to attend veterinary practices anyway, and the pandemic has enhanced signs of anxiety in these dogs.

We asked owners whose pet has shown one of the behaviours listed** what they had done about their pet’s behaviour. The most common answer for both dog and cat owners was to look on a website (31% and 27% respectively), showing the great opportunity for providing education this way, but also raising the concern about inaccurate and potentially misleading information available online. Only 15% of dog owners spoke to a veterinary professional for advice about their pet’s behaviour. This proportion was higher for cat owners (25%).

Problem behaviours

Hear from Veterinary Behaviourist Dr Kevin McPeake, MRCVS:

Dr Kevin McPeake, BVMS, PGDip(CABC), PhD, AFHEA, CCAB, DipECAWBM(BM) MRCVS, Lecturer in Clinical Animal Behaviour at the University of Edinburgh

Footnotes

* showing signs of fear, growling, snapping or biting unfamiliar dogs, owners/carers, or another household dog

** For dogs: barking or vocalising for more than a minute at a time at someone out of the window, jumping up at people, growling, snapping or biting another household dog, growling, snapping or biting owners / carers, growling, snapping or biting unfamiliar dogs, signs of distress when left alone e.g. scratching, destructive behaviour, prolonged barking, crying or howling, or toileting in the house, not coming back when called, showing signs of fear, spending more time in quiet areas of the home, behaviour towards my children that worries me.

For cats: Growling, swiping or biting owners / carers, growling, swiping or biting other household cats, growling, swiping or biting unfamiliar people, inappropriate toileting in the house, hiding, howling / miaowing / vocalising, increase in timid / scared / nervous behaviour, overgrooming, killing wildlife, fighting with other cats