How to protect your pet's mental health during the pandemic

How to protect your pet's mental health during the pandemic

Everyone can suffer from poor mental health; it's not always something that can be easily controlled and it can feel extremely isolating - but you're never alone. If you're struggling with short-term or long-term related issues, recognising the signs of mental illness and taking action will help you to manage your symptoms and start your recovery.

Pets can offer amazing support and can actually improve our mood, but did you know that they can also suffer from poor mental health themselves? Our companion animal welfare expert, Sam Gaines, explains how we can help care for our pets' mental health, during the pandemic and thereafter.

We're seeing a surge in 'lockdown puppies'

This year has seen the mental health of millions of people affected by the coronavirus pandemic, with many individuals experiencing higher than normal levels of fear, anxiety, loneliness and emotional distress.

For many, comfort throughout this crisis has been found in our pets. In fact, pets have become much sought after in recent months with unprecedented levels of interest in fostering and adoption. There have even been reported shortages of puppies and kittens as a result.

Considering the many beneficial effects of animals on our mental health, we can understand why more and more households are thinking about bringing a pet into their home now that many are finding themselves with more time and flexibility to do so.

How do pets improve our mental health?

Pets have been found to improve our mood by lowering levels of anxiety and depression, as well as by reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation.

It has also been shown that during times of change, or when exposed to events that can place individuals at an increased risk of mental health conditions, companion animals even appear to play a role in increasing the owner's resilience. It's not surprising that so many people have them as part of their family.

How does our mental health affect our pets?

Pets can sense how we're feeling and can even mirror our stress (remember when Joey in F.R.I.E.N.D.S 'broke' the happy dog?).

Pets might seem like the perfect antidote for many in the current crisis, but with recent studies suggesting that some of our most popular pets are very capable of responding to human emotional expression, it's an important time to consider the impact that COVID-19 might be having on us and in turn, our pets.

How is the coronavirus pandemic affecting our pets?

While many studies looking at the impact of COVID-19 on pet behaviour are still ongoing, there are some that have recently been published which show the pandemic may be affecting some of our pets.

For example, a recent study from Dogs Trust exploring the effect of COVID-19 on dogs and their owners found increased reports of clinginess and attention-seeking behaviours as well as fear or frustration associated behaviours.

How will our pets cope after the coronavirus pandemic is over?

dogMany animal welfare organisations fear that the worst may be yet to come. It's anticipated that many pets will experience separation-related problems once their owners return to work and they find themselves home alone.

As behaviour problems and changes in personal circumstances are major factors for relinquishment and euthanasia, pets may be facing their own crisis following the pandemic.

As we continue to make our way through this pandemic, it's important to keep reminding ourselves that our pets may also be struggling and are reliant on us to protect their mental wellbeing. But the good news is that there are lots of ways that we can help them.

How can we better understand how our pets are feeling?

One of the best things to do is to recognise and understand our pets' body language as behaviour is the outward expression of our pets' inward emotional state.

Becoming familiar with the different signs that our pets use can really help us to know when they're feeling sad, happy or anxious. You can learn to recognise and understand your pet's behaviour by using our body language infographics:

If our pets are feeling worried or anxious, there are lots of things we can do to help them feel happier, including setting aside regular time for play, exercise, rest and training. Just being with us can help our pets feel relaxed and happy!

If you're yet to return to work, you can start preparing your pet for when you do by introducing gradual changes. We have some great tips for helping cats and dogs adjust to a new routine to get you started.

I'm worried about my pet's behaviour, what can I do?

If while you have been at home your pet has developed a behaviour problem, then now is the time to seek help. Not only are behaviour problems often indicative of mental health issues and poor welfare in our pets, but they can also have a major impact on our relationship with them. 

One recent study found that problematic dog behaviour can result in owners experiencing negative emotions including sadness, frustration and anger similar to caregiver's burden.

While it's very tempting to search online for behaviour advice, it can be very risky as some of the available advice on the internet is incorrect, out of date and even dangerous for you and your pet. We always advise that the best action to take is to seek a pet behaviour expert.

If you have other worries about your pet's health and welfare during the coronavirus pandemic, such as their health or not being able to afford their care, please take action by reading our expert advice.

Find out more about how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting our pets.

I'm struggling with my mental health, what should I do?

If you're concerned about your own mental health, there are many great resources to support you. For guidance and help, please always contact your GP. You can also get in touch with Samaritans or Mind for more professional advice and resources.

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