One positive aspect of the COVID19 situation is that many of us have had extra time to spend with our pets at home. Dogs and cats have enjoyed the company of their owners.
It was a shock to their system when the COVID lockdown happened: suddenly their owners were at home all the time, with much more socialisation, far less time on their own. And now that the lockdown is over, the reverse change will happen: pets that have grown used to humans being around all the time are going to have to get used to being left alone more, as we all go out to work, shops and our normal busy lives.
Dogs will be affected most: they are social creatures who see humans as being part of their pack. But cats also enjoy our company, and they can miss us when we're not there. One study found that up to 40 percent of cats get depressed as a result of boredom and loneliness.
So what can pet owners do to help their animals get used to being alone?
The first step is to ensure that change happens gradually rather than all of a sudden. Deliberately choose to leave your pets in a room by themselves for short periods, even when you are at home. This will teach them that it's OK to be on their own, and they will cope better than if you suddenly head out for several hours with no warning.
The second step is to ensure that you still have plenty of interaction together when you able to do so. Take your dog for walks twice daily. And spend time with your cat, playing games with them, grooming them, and just letting them know that you appreciate them. For dogs, using a doggy day care service for two or three days a week is helpful: this gives your dog extra socialisation time with other dogs. A full day of this is exhausting for most dogs, and they're often happy to relax and sleep the following day.
The third aspect is to monitor your pet in your absence: this is easily done using inexpensive cameras that can connect to your home wifi, monitoring from afar via your smartphone. You can check if your pet is contented while you are away.
The fourth step can be the most challenging one: finding a way for your pets to entertain themselves in your absence. If they're left with no other option, and especially when they are not used to being on their own, pets can suffer from separation anxiety. Dogs are prone to chewing furniture, biting door frames, barking and howling. Meanwhile, cats scratch furniture, shred carpets and curtains, and jump up onto shelves, knocking ornaments to the ground. As well as these external signs, pets that carry out these behaviours are clearly unhappy.
So how can pets entertain themselves safely? There are many possibilities: for example, there are dedicated Youtube channels for dogs and cats, although most animals don't engage with television in the same way as humans: they get bored of pictures and sounds from an inanimate box.
For dogs, food-stuffed chew toys can work well. Examples include Kong pyramid-shaped rubber toys with a hollow centre to fill with food then freeze, and K9Connectable toys that fit together; as the dog separates the toys, treats are released for them to enjoy. The only problem with these options is that dogs can't be left safely on their own with anything: there is always a very small risk that they may chew an object into pieces that they might choke on. Sometimes it's a case of knowing your own dog, understanding how they react when they have something that can be chewed.
Self-entertaining toys for cats are an area that has been expanding in recent years. You can buy special food-releasing toys that cats have to pat with their paws. There are puzzles that they need to work out in order to find special treats. And most recently, an interactive toy has been designed to specifically appeal to cats' instincts to hunt and chase.
The Cheerble Board Game (from https://www.cheerble.com/ ) is known as a 3-in-1 toy: it fulfils the three functions of exercise/play, scratching, and napping.
The exercise/play is the most obvious function: the game comes with a "smart" ball that you need to charge up. You then place the ball in side the rectangular base, and it starts to leap all over the place. This self-propelled ball has been designed to give cats the right balance between exercise and nap, stopping after every 10 minutes to give them a 30-minute rest. Cats get bored easily, and this mix of active play and snoozing works well for them.
The ball bounces around inside the base: my own cat Peig especially likes when it goes beneath a semi-enclosed area. She has to poke her paws through holes to reach the ball: it's like hunting small rodents that dart in and out of their dens.
Other clever features of the toy include a wand with a soft pompom for Peig to swipe. And when she gets bored of playing, there's a built-in scratch pad set into its base, so she can use this to sharpen her claws rather than the furniture in our home.
The final aspect of this toy was unexpected: it has been designed to be just the right size for a cat to curl up into. Once Peig is tired of the play and the scratching, she curls up and snoozes inside the base. And when she does this, I know from looking at her that she is one happy cat.