24 Aug 2021

Everything you need to know about caring for pets during lockdown

7:56 am on 24 August 2021

If you're looking for lockdown fans, animals might be the only ones putting their paws up right now.

No caption

File photo. Photo: Supplied

When everything's shut, there's not a lot to do except for taking the dog for a walk or playing with a furry feline. But how many walks are too many and can you tire out your own pet?

Animal behaviourist Mark Vette says during lockdown it is important to socialise dogs and continue training them to ensure they do not suffer distress or separation anxieties after lockdown is over.

"The main risks are that they get a bit more protective and reactive to people and other dogs because they haven't seen them for a good while, and so there's ways you can do work around that keep their socialisation at least apparently up and so they don't go into problem behaviours."

Vette uses clicker training to do this under alert level 4.

"You've got your social distancing rules, so you keep away from other people, at least three or four meters away, and you just put the dog down and use a 'look' command and an 'up look' command and you click, reward them for looking and behaving sociably, you know not barking at them and not threatening them. Just watching them and being aware of people but not hyper-reacting."

He says without continued socialisation, dogs can become anxious and more reactive to everyday sounds.

"If you let them get anxious and wary and start barking at things and get reactive, then that'll start to get set in place and become their kind of coping mechanism and their way of behaving towards people and dogs, which we don't want of course. We want to retain their sociability."

Vette says, even if every family member takes the dog for a walk, it's unusual for them to get over stimulated.

"Obviously the smaller breeds and the more giant breeds, you've just got to be a little more careful how much exercise you give them and accommodate for the breed they are, but given that they are normally a healthy dog, they can walk really well.

"But you do need to get them fit, just like anything, if you're going to walk a lot more with them then they need to get fit with you. So, you just increase the length of time so it's got the opportunity to get fit, just like you need to. But I can tell you from my own experience that generally most families don't over-stimulate their dog, they under-stimulate them. I would recommend people, all the family, get involved."

He says cats are lower maintenance.

"The old saying, dogs have owners and cats have staff is probably very pertinent."

"Cats are solitary species by nature. If you go back to their ancestral cats, the Felis Silvestris Lybica, which was the ancestral cat. But the good thing is they're not so worried about you or the way you're behaving. As long as you feed them and handle them, and keep friending them they're happy as Larry, and the longer you're at home, the better they like it."

Vette says animals are great for people's mental health in lockdown.

"There's 10 or 15 benefits that dogs have for us being around them more and they're all positive health things, you know they increase your heart health, they increase your dopamine levels, they increase your oxytocin levels. All of those things are beneficial to humans, so it's a good thing to be home with your pets. "

But when it comes to walking your dog in lockdown, microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles says it is important to follow all level four guidelines and restrictions.

"If you're going and walking your dog, put your mask on and keep them on a leash, that's really important. That will stop other people from trying to pet your animal"

Another question on everyone's mind: are you allowed to pat another person's dog or cat while you're going for your daily lockdown walk?

Last year, minks in Europe contracted Covid-19 and were able to pass it onto humans, and Denmark went so far as to kill 17 million minks in November in response to the outbreaks.

And although Siouxsie Wiles says there have been no confirmed cases of household pets transmitting Covid-19 to humans, it's better to be safe than sorry.

"Tempted though we may be, I would say leave it alone. If you had Covid-19, you are more likely to transmit it to their animal than the animal give it to you. So perhaps think of them as well rather than thinking of your own health."

When it comes to pets carrying Covid-19 particles on their fur, Wiles says while that is highly unlikely, it can't be ruled out.

"There was a concern that if people had Covid-19 they would then be putting virus particles on their pet. I mean, this is potentially still true even with an airborne virus, but then the worry was that if people touch, you know petted the animal, that they would pick it up."

"We've got very little evidence of what we call this fomite transmission - transmission from inanimate objects - the one good documented case that we thought we had here in New Zealand with the rubbish bin lid actually, that looks like it was more aerosol transmission, but that doesn't mean that it couldn't happen."

Wiles says being cautious is the best way forward.

"While I know it would be lovely, and probably really good for people's mental health, to be petting other people animals, I think keep your hands to yourself and make sure everybody is masked up outdoors."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs