There can be very few people whose lives have not been dramatically affected by the restrictions of lockdown and, if we look beyond the personal tragedies hidden in the official statistics, many of us are finding life increasingly difficult as the social restrictions continue.
If you are a key worker, your life will have become very much busier with all the stresses and strains that this involves for you and your family and, if not, you may have found yourself furloughed with the uncertainties that this involves or have even been made redundant. Social distancing carries its own concerns and our inability to get out and about, as we used to do, is stressful for our extended families, friends and even our pets.
While being home all day can be exciting for our pets, dogs like routine just as much as we do. When your dog barks to tell you it’s five o’clock and teatime, it isn’t because he has discovered how to wear a watch, it’s because he has fully embraced the idea of routine. As humans, when our routine is disturbed, we can find that stimulating or stressful, depending on the background causes and much of our stress is transmitted to our pets through our body language, our general demeanour and the tonality of our voices. Over thousands of years, dogs have refined the art of reading our faces and voices and I am sometimes reminded that our twelve-year-old Labrador knows me better than I know myself. Is it any wonder that this can be a difficult time for our pets too?
What are the key issues here that worry people? Perhaps we should start with the fear that our pets could catch this virus from us. Covid 19 is just one of a number of coronaviruses, so named because their appearance under an electron microscope looks like a crown – or corona – with a series of protrusions, and animals can contract many of these too. However, while there are viruses, like the common cold, that we get but which animals such as cats and dogs do not, we are aware of a very small number of animals testing positive for Covid 19 in some other countries. However, there is no substantiated evidence that this particular coronavirus can make our pets sick or that they can transmit it to us.
If, when you are out walking your dog, someone stops and pats the dog you shouldn’t worry but it would be good practice to wipe the dog’s fur with a clean, damp, disposable cloth once you get home as we know that the virus can live for several hours on different surfaces. Do not use an antibacterial wipe as this could cause a skin problem in some dogs. Wiping the fur reduces the chances of any residual virus that could possibly have been deposited on the dog’s fur from transferring to another human.
For the same reason, it would be advisable not to stroke another dog while you are out and about.
When walking your dog stay local, and don’t take the dog in your car to a different place to get some variation in the route as this increases the chance of human to human transmission.
When you are out, maintain social distancing and this means that you should have your dog on a lead, wherever there are other people and dogs, to avoid having to get close to another person to regain control of your dog.
Local councils should continue to empty receptacles for poo bags, and it is important that you maintain social distancing at these sites too, remembering to wash your hands thoroughly as soon as you get home.
Dogs love routine and may be used to several walks a day; however, the instruction to us all is to take exercise just once a day. If you can combine your dog walk with taking your exercise that’s great, and if there’s more than one person in your household who is free to go out that gives the opportunity for the dog to have more than one walk a day with a different person.
If a relative or neighbour is self-isolating, it’s important that we all help out as much as possible where other people have problems, but only if we stay within the government guidelines. If you are aware that someone needs help with their dog, you can put a note though their door or text their phone offering your assistance. If you are walking someone else’s dog, you must maintain social distancing at the point of transfer of the dog to you and again at the end of the walk, as well during the walk itself. The best way would be for the dog’s owner to transfer the dog, already on its lead, into a safe, contained area and then for them to retreat by at least two metres before you enter the space to collect it. This procedure can then be reversed at the end of the session when you hand the dog back.
Maintaining good hand hygiene by washing your hands before and after the process is hugely important.
It may be necessary for a self-isolating person’s dog to go to the vet and it will not be possible for that person to take the dog there. In such a situation, it is acceptable for you to take their dog for them subject to the veterinary practice approval.
However, while all veterinary practices will try to offer a safe level of service most are now operating with a severely restricted level of staffing during the crisis. This restricts the practice’s ability to see many animals other than emergencies and many practices will have different rules; almost all will be operating a very strict policy of only seeing emergencies and very sick animals at the practice, while some will prefer to screen the pet by examining an emailed photograph and history. Then, if seen, you may well be asked to wait outside or in the car when the animal is examined. Always call first before setting off to the vet during this crisis as vets too may have vulnerable loved ones at home and may need to practise extra precautions accordingly.
Most vets will post out repeat medication for your pets but remember that this can add several days so do not allow your stock to become too low before requesting repeat medication. This is particularly important if you source your medication online as this too can add an additional process period over and above the time it takes to obtain a repeat prescription.
Similar considerations apply to obtaining food for your dog. If you normally buy from your veterinary practice, call them to ask how they are dealing with this. Some have put a collection point in place where, having paid online or by phone, you can simply go to collect it while others have arranged for a delivery service which may add incremental cost.
The government has allowed pet shops to remain open and, while some of these are sizeable and can accommodate social distancing rules similar to supermarkets, many smaller shops have a phone-and-collect or click-and-collect system in place. Most dog foods are easily obtainable online, but delivery charges can be quite high for heavy or bulky items.
The same arrangements will apply to preventative care such as flea, worm and tick medication whether obtained from your vet, the pet shop or online and it is important that you maintain the normal routine of preventative care throughout the lockdown period as, if allowed to take over, parasites can make your pet very ill. Microchipping is now a legal requirement for all dogs, but most practices will be prioritising their care for emergencies only and you should check beforehand. The same would be said for neutering a dog unless it was considered to be a necessary, emergency procedure.
While so many of us have time on our hands, the opportunity to get a puppy might look irresistible. However, obtaining a puppy during the crisis may not be possible from a rescue centre or breeder just now. Indeed it may not be a good idea at all as social distancing will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve and opportunities for socialising the puppy, a vital part of its training and preparation for life with your family, will also be extremely limited.
All dogs and puppies need vaccination and, to be effective, this needs to follow a strict regimen of timing. During the crisis, many practices have not been able to offer the normal vaccination service and it may be that your pet will have needed to wait until the lockdown is over. However, recent relaxation of the restrictions now permits primary vaccination of puppies and kittens and you should check with your veterinary practice whether this also applies to puppies and kittens who may be waiting for their second course of vaccination before gaining full immunity. If your animal is unvaccinated, you will have to ensure that it doesn’t go anywhere that other unprotected dogs may have visited and you may have to keep them inside your own garden until normal services resume and a new vaccination programme can be started. Of course, all this has ramifications for pet insurance claims and it always pays to consult your insurer before making a claim.
Some breeds have been chosen because we like their appearance so much and this requires regular visits to the groomer. During the crisis, we need to abandon our desire to see the dog appear well groomed and concentrate instead on keeping the pet safe and healthy. Bath time can still be fun but grooming of hair and nails will have to wait. In extreme cases, and with great care, any owner can trim the dog’s hair and mistakes can easily be put right once the crisis is over, but it is not advisable to trim a dog’s nails without proper training. Neither would a best-intentioned injury that an owner had inflicted on their dog be considered a reasonable veterinary claim by many insurers!
While we need to ensure that we do everything to keep our pets physically healthy, we also have a responsibility to maintain their emotional health too. Enforced lockdown has sent reported cases of domestic abuse soaring and we can easily see how domestic stress can influence our dog’s behaviour.
When we are bored, we easily become depressed and this also applies to our dogs. For those of us who have time on our hands, this represents a great opportunity to spend some of it playing with the dog and there are many simple games that can be played in the confines of our gardens (if we have them) or out on the daily walk.
For the key workers among us, who may now have far less time available than ever before, our dogs still need regular exercise and mental stimulation which could be provided by another family member or friend, still within the social distancing rules, where we are unable to do it ourselves.
Finally, when the crisis is over and life begins to go back to the way it was before, time will bring about another round of changes which may affect our dogs’ wellbeing. This is important to remember before we allow problem behaviours, such as boredom and separation anxiety, to creep in under the radar as we busy ourselves restoring normality.