Pet behavior lessons learned during the pandemic
Millions of pet owners and their animal companions had their lives turned upside down during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dire predictions abounded about how the monthslong lockdowns would negatively impact pet behavior. Canine separation anxiety was anticipated to surge once the lockdowns were lifted and owners went back to the office. Predictions were made that an entire generation of unsocialized dogs, the so-called pandemic puppies, raised in relative isolation, would be loosed on the public.
Now that much of society has returned to their pre-pandemic lives, what can be said about these predictions? While it’s still early yet, veterinary behaviorists Drs. Valarie Tynes and Laurie Bergman brought up the question during a presentation for the Small Animal Behavior Symposium on Jan. 15 at the Veterinary Meeting and Expo in Orlando, Florida.
Importance of socialization
Anecdotal evidence so far shows no significant increase in cases of canine separation anxiety, according to Dr. Tynes, owner of a veterinary behavior practice in Texas. During the pandemic, she spoke frequently on behalf of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists to news media outlets that all wanted to know if canine separation anxiety would spike once owners were no longer home for much of the day.
“The message I had then and I still have now is we don’t know what causes separation anxiety,” Dr. Tynes said. “There is often this suggestion that a big change in the owner’s schedule causes the dog to develop separation anxiety, but how can you really know that? You’re talking about a condition that, by definition, occurs when you leave.”
“I’m not necessarily seeing dogs who were adopted or born during the pandemic who now have separation anxiety,” agreed Dr. Bergman, who works at a veterinary specialty hospital in Pennsylvania.
Both speakers agreed that fears about unsocialized pandemic puppies are overblown and behavioral issues arising from lack of socialization now are consistent with what was occurring prior to the pandemic.
“I’m finding a lot of veterinarians are still not talking to owners about socialization,” Dr. Tynes said. “In fact, I was seeing the same number of socialization problems before the pandemic as I do now because that message, about how important proper socialization is for a dog’s well-being, is not be shared.”
Dr. Bergman noted two behavior studies published recently, one study concerning dogs and facial recognition and the other concerning the stress of clinical examinations on feline patients.
The first study, “Comparative brain imaging reveals analogous and divergent patterns of species- and face-sensitivity in humans and dogs,” was published in the October 2022 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. Researchers wanted to know whether dogs are primed to see faces the same way that humans do.
Study participants were shown images of humans and animals while their brain activity was mapped by functional magnetic resonance imaging. What the study found was that humans focused first on an expression while dogs focused first on the species.
“Dogs read human facial expressions, but our expression isn’t the first thing they see,” Dr. Bergman explained. “The study showed dogs recognize human head shape and canine head shape, and anything that disrupts that outline can cause alarm.”
The second study, published in the April 2021 issue of the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, looked to quantify the effects on fear, anxiety, and stress in cats of separation from the owner at a veterinary clinic and of the location of the physical examination. The findings showed that cats’ heart rates were substantially elevated when their owners were not in the room.
Veterinary staff members may find curbside appointments without the owner preferable, but they may not be ideal for the feline patient, the presenters said. They added that a cat may become immobile during examination without the owner, and while that may be good for the veterinarian and veterinary technician, it can be a sign of learned helplessness.