I received a call from a client the day after Christmas. She said she'd had it. Being locked in her house for 9 months with her spouse, her kids, two cats, and a puppy and she said she felt like she was ready to snap! She wanted to know why everything was her responsibility and if there was anything to be done to get them all back on track. At this point, her cats weren't getting along (one had started marking again) and the puppy was back to being mouthy and counter surfing (and trash can diving!) all of the time. She said if it wasn't for the pandemic and the fact that no one can go anywhere non-essential here in California, she'd have escaped with her girlfriends to an island far away from it all by this point!
I get it. I really do. I'm tired of sheltering in place too. I miss my pet assisted therapy visits with Desi. I miss going to the beach with Ozzie and Westley. I miss vacations and flying to Southern California to see friends and family. While I have enjoyed all of our family time, I, too, long to be free! I am extremely fortunate that all three dogs get along well together and have not had any lasting behavior problems during this pandemic. So, what can my client, and others like her, do to get back on track?
First, prioritize the problems. The cat urinating in the house was my first priority. He needs an appointment with the vet to make sure that this is a behavior problem and not indicative of a physical issue. He is an older cat who is sensitive to stress; in the past, he has started marking when the kids weren't getting along with one another! Now it's the case that he and the other cat aren't getting along, but that could have a physical basis too given that the peeing cat isn't as playful with his feline friend, nor are they grooming each other as much. Until she can get the cat in to see the vet, she is going to separate the cats to reduce their stress. The cat who is urinating inappropriately is in a room away from the other animals, with two litterboxes, two cat trees, fresh water, and plenty of toys. The other cat still has the rest of the house. Once we know whether this issue is behavioral or physical, we can begin supervising time between the two cats and hopefully resolve any lingering issues.
As for the the mouthy puppy doing all of the counter surfing and trashcan diving, I said it was time to address this problem head-on. The puppy was something her kids and husband wanted, not her (she's a self proclaimed cat person!). They need to step up and enforce the crate nap times during the day so that he doesn't get sleep deprived and out of control. Much of his mouthy behavior and zooming around the house stealing things off the counter and table can be rectified by enforcing crate naps, time in his x-pen, and making sure he gets his daily walks, training sessions, and interactive toy time. If the kids won't step up and do these things, then the pup may be better off in another household where people can coordinate his care better. My client indicated that if she even mentioned re-homing the puppy, her kids would go crazy! Well then, they need to take a more proactive role in his care! A lot of work goes into raising a puppy and everyone needs to be on board with what that care will look like. They all needed to put in more time working on tasks such as "leave it" and "drop it" with this puppy; while we had taught him these commands and dished out rewards for his doing so during my appointment with them a few months ago, no one had continued to work on these behaviors and thus the puppy was back to surfing and trash can diving for attention and stimulation .Setting up a family schedule where all tasks are assigned for the day (or the week) and those tasks rotate so that each family member takes an active role in each of the component parts. Thus, no one is always in charge of feeding or walking or picking up poop. Everyone rotates in on those tasks. While it's fine to ask mom for help, she shouldn't be the one doing everything. My client felt that setting up the schedule would likely work for her family and we talked about some potential consequences for both the puppy and for the kids if they fail to keep up.
It is really important for all of us to remember that this pandemic won't last forever. We all need to begin preparing ourselves and our pets for the inevitable end of sheltering in place, returning to school, work, etc. We need to remind our pets that it is okay to be alone. This means leaving your dog alone for periods of time everyday. That time might be in their crates for naps if you have a puppy, or it could simply be working in one room while your dog naps in another. If your dog follows you around all day long, assign periods of time during the day when you will ignore him. They need to learn that attention 24/7 isn't sustainable, nor is it healthy. If it's a nice day, give your dog a bone to chew on outdoors. If not, maybe a bully stick or an interactive toy will keep them occupied and self-contained. You will need to build up the amount of time they can be left alone. Our pets shouldn't come to expect that someone will always be home with them. Load everyone in the car when you head to the grocery store, even when only one person actually goes inside to shop! If you are really worried about what your pets are doing in your absence, set up a camera so you can watch them from your phone. Now is the time to figure out if they can be left alone and for how long. Once you know that, you can build from there.
Finally, cut yourself some slack. This pandemic has been rough on everyone. Relationships have been put to the test and adding in a new pet can be stressful under the best of circumstances. Being honest with family members about what's working and what isn't, not placing blame or responsibility on just one person, are the keys to success. We all need to work together to get through this. As couples, as families, and as communities.
As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.