tech-science

We Asked Scientists If Our Pets Love Us Being Home All the Time

If you're getting side-eye from the dog while in isolation, don't worry: scientists have answers for how pets handle pandemics.
25 March 2020, 5:10am
​Image: Merethe Svarstad Eeg/EyeEm via Getty Images
Image: Merethe Svarstad Eeg/EyeEm via Getty Images

As the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, millions of commuters around the world have switched to working from home to slow the spread of the virus. One side effect of this sudden lifestyle change is that a lot of us are now spending all day with our pets, which raises the question: How are our dogs and cats adapting to the new self-isolation and quarantine measures?

Pets have a wide range of personalities and backgrounds and that will undoubtedly influence their individual responses to all this bonus time with their human companions. However, the vast majority of dogs and cats are likely to welcome the opportunity for more social interaction with their guardians, according to experts on pet-human bonds.

“I think dogs are thrilled to have their humans around more often,” said psychologist Laurie Santos, director of the Canine Cognition Center at Yale University, in an email (though she cautioned that there are no direct studies to confirm that claim at the moment).

“Dogs are also getting more walks out of this scary situation (since many of us can only go outside to walk these days),” Santos continued. “So overall I think the Covid-19 situation has been a huge win for dogs.”

Kristyn Vitale, a cat researcher at the Human-Animal Interaction Lab at Oregon State University, predicts that most cats will also benefit from more time with their humans. “I think many cats prefer to have human companions at home,” she said.

As an example, she referred to her research into the comparative sociability of shelter cats and pet cats, which was published last year in the journal Behavioural Processes. “We found that compared to pet cats, shelter cats spent more time near a stranger who was ignoring them,” Vitale explained.

“Shelter cats do not have a familiar human companion and may have less opportunity to interact socially. When cats lack consistent social interaction, they may be more motivated to seek out social attention from people,” she said. “I think the importance of social interaction in the lives of cats has been underestimated.”

Vitale and her colleagues have also demonstrated that interaction with humans was the preferred form of stimulus for both shelter cats and pet cats—even over food. If you are a cat owner who often hears the hopeful whine of your hungry feline, you can appreciate what an immense compliment it is that cats rank human attention over their next treat.

Of course, not all cats and dogs have the same personalities or living spaces, and some may be overwhelmed by the new activity going on in the house. If guardians are busy balancing teleworking with entertaining kids who are home from school, pets may fall by the wayside or experience anxiety over their altered living conditions. If a cat is feeling left out, they may not leave you alone.

“In that case, try giving your cat a special spot in your home office, like a cat tower, where they can watch you work from a distance," Vitale said. “You can also try added enrichment to keep them active. I am sure all of us have extra toilet paper rolls laying around right now. Make your cat a food task by cutting some holes in the toilet paper roll, folding one edge down, filling it with treats, then folding the other edge down so your cat must move the roll around to get food.”

Since cats tend to be resistant to sudden change, you might also want to make sure that your pet isn’t discombobulated by all the new activity at home—particularly if he or she tends to crave lots of solitary time.

“If you find your cat is stressed, try to give the cat their own space in the home,” Vitale advised. “Set aside a spot where your cat has some enriching items, like toys or a cat bed, in a quiet location where they feel safe.”

Dogs may be thrown off by rapid changes in schedules and routines too, but Santos noted that most of them are good sports about major disruptions in life, such as the addition of a newborn baby to a family. As long as they are not neglected or treated inhumanely, dogs tend to roll with the punches.

“It's a change for them, but one that dogs get used to in other cases,” Santos said. “I think a more stressful thing for dogs is watching their guardians feel so much stress and anxiety. There's evidence that dogs are attuned to our emotions, so I think dogs will pick up on the fact that we're feeling very anxious and scared these days.”

In other words, remaining calm at home could reassure both the canine and feline empaths in your house, in addition to being good for your own mental and physical health.

Of course, for many of us, it will not always be possible to keep a cool head in the midst of such distressing and disruptive times. Fortunately, the very same qualities that have made pets sensitive to the emotions of their guardians enables them to be extremely effective sources of comfort to humans. “Learning more about your cat, watching your cat enjoy enrichment items, and building a training relationship can also be a fun distraction from everything going on right now,” Vitale said.

Similarly, dog owners might want to use the extra time at home to play fetch, take more walks, or simply give your pup a good old-fashioned belly-rub.

“There's lots of evidence that dogs are helpful for our mental and physical health,” Santos said. “Just petting a dog can reduce our stress hormones, and being around dogs can improve our negative moods. So, I think they're really able to convey lots of benefits to us in this stressful time.”

It’s worth noting that there are many pets currently in shelters that do not have the luxury of a stable home, guardian, or family. If you’ve been thinking about getting your first pet, or adding to your animal family, you might want to consider adopting or fostering a shelter pet, assuming you have the means and space to do so in this precarious time.

While many shelters have restricted their visiting hours in compliance with social distancing measures, they are still actively encouraging people to adopt or foster, as a surge of pets may be abandoned or orphaned due to the pandemic. Not only will adoption or fostering give you a new friend to focus on while in isolation, it will also support shelter workers, many of whom are volunteers.

“Now is a great time to adopt a pet to reduce the potential strain on shelters and to offer to foster in case shelters start receiving an increase in requests for foster care of pets for seriously ill or hospitalized people,” said the Humane Society in a statement. “Fosters can also be lifesavers for pets who can't adapt to shelter life.”

This plea to adopt needy pets during this crisis adds a whole new meaning to the term “shelter-at-home.” Even as lockdowns and quarantines limit our normal activities, they also present opportunities to either bring a new pet into your life, or to strengthen your bonds with the animals you have now. Setting aside some time to play or cuddle with your pet, or to welcome a new pet into your home, will help humans and animals alike to weather this challenging period.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.