Most people will look back on 2020 as the Year of the Pandemic. Veterinarians will also remember it as the Year of the Pandemic Puppy.
There has never been a period in our lifetimes like 2020 into early 2021. Schools closed. Restaurants and movie theaters shut down. Live performances and sports were canceled. Large swaths of our population were isolated in their homes, encouraged not to go to work, if that was even an option. Many were offered unprecedented stimulus money to do so. People were understandably both lonely and irritated with family members they could not get away from.
Obviously, anyone reading this is well aware of these facts.
What you may not realize is that those businesses that were deemed “essential” (a seemingly arbitrary list, in some cases) were often overwhelmed by steeply increased demand for their services. One such business category was veterinary practice. After an uncertain pause as we all wondered if we would even survive, there was a massive, unexpected upturn in clients seeking appointments. Much of this could be attributed to people spending more time with their pets at home, along with increased discretionary income and craving a change in routine. No one could claim to be “too busy” to take the pet to the vet anymore, so they scrambled to get their pets caught up on long-delayed services such as vaccines, dental care, minor (or major) surgery. Being locked at home with pets made small problems feel bigger, leading to owners catastro-phizing minor issues. Combined with the need to reduce human contact and reduced business hours at many practices, the “curbside” veterinary appointment was born.
In an effort to reduce risk to both staff and clients, many practices reduced hours or cut back on staffing. A few closed altogether, and some stopped accepting new patients. Curbside service became the norm, reducing efficiency in some cases. Emergency and specialty centers began to triage cases, turning away anything that didn’t sound life-threatening. The line for emergency services was often several hours long, and pets were required to wait in the car with their owners.
Into this void was born the “pandemic puppy.”
Many lonely people, isolated people, and people who had been considering pet ownership decided this was the time to get a pet. The shelters virtually emptied as the first impulse was to adopt a dog or cat locally. This was great news, and resulted in the adoption of numerous less-appealing dogs that might otherwise have gone unadopted. But purebred puppy (and to a lesser extent, kitten) purchases also skyrocketed.
This demand led some breeders to produce more puppies. Some of those breeders were novices, or perhaps not as familiar with sanitary practices as befits the whelping and raising of puppies and kittens. Some were downright unscrupulous, others simply naïve or opportunistic. But the net effect was the mass production of puppies for sale, particularly trendy breeds such as bulldogs and toy breeds, which all have innate health issues, even when careful selection is in play.
Opportunities to mingle with other dog owners were very limited. Puppy classes were not available, so new owners had no way to get a start on basic puppy training. Many of these new pets almost never left their owners’ sides.
The result of this confluence of events was an explosion of sickly and/or anxious puppies owned by novice pet owners, at a time when veterinary services were exceptionally hard to come by. As veterinarians, we had to try to discuss the needs of new pets with humans over the phone, never even meeting these new clients, with limited time as we struggled to keep up with the demand for our services. We often resorted to website links, and of course so did these new pet owners.
Fast forward to 2021. People are going out, going back to work. And finding they have adopted a monster. Poorly socialized pets, many of whom have underlying anxiety disorders to begin with, whose entire lives have revolved around their new owners. Puppies who have no idea what to do when they are suddenly separated from said owners. In a word, they tend to freak out.
The result of this confluence of events was an explosion of sickly and/or anxious puppies owned by novice pet owners, at a time when veterinary services were exceptionally hard to come by.
Our fear, of course, is that thousands of animals will now be dumped in shelters by owners whose lives are getting back to normal and who are overwhelmed by a pet with severe separation anxiety.
Pet professionals well remember the crash of 2008, and its attendant foreclosure epidemic. In that scenario, as people were turned out of their homes, they found they could no longer care for a pet. Shelters filled to capacity and beyond. Pets were turned away at these shelters, only to be literally tossed over the fence after dark in some cases, or left behind as their owners vacated homes, expecting someone in authority to be taking over the property the next day. Some cases ended in tragedy.
So, what can be done to prevent a parallel event? How can you, as a pet lover, manage your young, anxious dog as you resume your busy life outside the home?
A four-pronged approach is needed:
1 Reconditioning at home. Ideally, this would start in advance, with short absences, such as going to the grocery or out to a restaurant—things we have been doing to a greater or lesser extent all along but certainly more now that our world is opening up again.
Assuming a typical daytime work schedule, start a routine that includes an early-morning leash walk or trip to the dog park for exercise. Make things as predictable as possible.
Your departure from the house should be separate from any other stimulus. Don’t feed your dog then attempt to “sneak” out of the house. Conversely, don’t make a big fuss and get them wound up just before you leave. For example, speaking in a high-pitched voice and lots of fast petting—this builds a sense of expectation and if you then abruptly withdraw your attention, it will be alarming and confusing. Rather, simply step out as if you were simply moving into another room.
Small things you may be unaware of may serve as anxiety triggers. These include picking up car keys or a purse. Some dogs will even key in on the clothing or shoes you wear to go away for longer periods of time. So do these things randomly—jingle the keys, dress up on a weekend, etc. Numerous excellent videos and articles are available online to help, and these can be tailored to the breed or type of dog you live with.
2 Professional training. Some pets just need professional help. This may feel expensive or intimidating, or even like “giving up.” But someone who works with dogs for a living can offer a fresh perspective customized to the specific situation. In most cases, this can be done in a series of short sessions. Your veterinarian or this publication can recommend good trainers who can make an enormous difference in your life and your pet’s life. It’s my sincere hope that local dog trainers will be resuming group classes aimed at adult dogs, to make up for the “puppy classes” that were not possible recently.
3 “Doggie day care,” ideally, with a supervising trainer or behaviorist. This isn’t a perfect substitute for a lack of early socialization. But if appropriate for your dog, it can act as a social outlet, as well as an opportunity for exercise and something to look forward to that doesn’t require you to be their constant companion. Basically, this offers them the ability to be a dog, interacting with other dogs, and to accept that you don’t have to be present 100% of the time. It also lets them work off some energy—and a tired dog is a happy dog!
4 Environment, supplements, and medication. Like many humans, some dogs just need a little help calming their minds so they can adjust to new situations. Your veterinarian can offer a variety of options depending on the severity of the situation.
Some easy and completely safe things to try at home:
■ Mild supplements and natural remedies for anxiety include “Rescue Remedy,” the trade name for a mix of Bach flowers, which is widely available through various suppliers. This is a very mild supplement that many find beneficial. It can be combined with any other product without fear of adverse response.
■ Some people report reduced anxiety in their pets after giving CBD products. First, do NOT give your pet any product designed to get humans “high!” Second, there is no standard available and many products labeled for pets are badly labeled, contain inconsistent amounts of active ingredient (or none), and bear dosage suggestions that are based on human dosing, at best. Two products that can be purchased over the internet, which are produced by very reputable companies, are Ellevet and Rx Vitamin’s HempRx. This mention does not constitute a recommendation or endorsement of either product. Unfortunately, studies are still lacking in the exact effects of these products. Veterinarians, ironically, are still legally prohibited from prescribing or dispensing hemp-based products.
■ Pheromones such as Feliway for cats or DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) for dogs serve as a sort of calming aromatherapy for pets. The effects are mild, and the products are 100% safe. For some animals, the results are amazing, and this is all that is needed.
■ Music. Behaviorists have shown that light classical music soothes pets and humans alike. There are even collections selected specifically for dogs or cats, using cadences and note ranges that have been shown to help them feel calmer.
■ Leaving the TV or radio on while you’re away can make it feel more “normal”— especially if you have one of these on most of the time while you’re home.
■ Both Hills and Royal Canin offer pet foods with calming ingredients. The respective designations are “Stress Formula” and CALM. These are available through your veterinarian.
■ Pulsed electromagnetic field. The Assisi Loop makes a special device meant to be worn behind the head, that has been demonstrated to have significant calming effects on dogs.
Finally, if none of these are helpful, if you feel your pet is beyond the help of simple remedies, or if your dog simply can’t focus on training, they may need a little extra help. Your veterinarian can prescribe medication for the short or long term to aid in conditioning. Be aware that—like people—it can take some trial and error to find the right combination to work with your pet’s unique psyche.