Laura Herlihy says she’s always felt as if she has a Secret Service agent: her 75-pound dog, Cooper. He’s always first in any room she enters, appearing to check that the room is clear and safe.
Since Herlihy began sheltering in place due to the coronavirus, things have gotten even more intimate.
“I now take the dog into the bathroom with me,” said Herlihy, who lives in Arlington, Va. Her four cats don’t all get along and divide their time in a complex upstairs-downstairs rotation. Her husband also moves around the house during the workday. The one constant is the Labrador-shaped shadow at Herlihy’s side.
“It’s a new level of attached to my hip,” said Herlihy, the owner of a media and branding company.
Cooper’s behavior may be devoted, but it isn’t unusual. While some of our furry and feathered roommates seem to be living their best lives in the ceaseless presence of teleworking owners, spending weeks cooped up with humans is stressful for other pets. By clinging, chewing, barking or otherwise acting odd, pets are signaling their own struggles to cope with less privacy and more anxious people, animal behaviorists say.
“Just like some humans love working at home and others can’t function without structure, and some people are binge eating and others aren’t — it’s exactly the same for pets,” said Marjie Alonso, executive director of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. “Some are chill, some are stressed. We have to remember that they’re individuals.”
All the closeness led to a surprising result for Lucy, a cockatiel who lives with the Nowka family in Lynn, Mass. Their veterinarian had warned them not to get too affectionate with the bird, lest she grow attached to a suitor outside her species — a situation that can cause cockatiels and other pet birds to lay eggs.
But when school closed in March, 11-year-old Bruno Nowka’s shoulder became a more available perch, and Lucy began to spend many waking hours there. Two weeks into quarantine, the bird laid two unfertilized eggs.
“Our vet believes that the combination of it being spring and our being home all the time led to her thinking Bruno was her mate,” said Bruno’s father, Scott Nowka, a university professor. Nowka said the vet told them they were the third family in a week to come in for the same reason.
For other pets, lockdown life has brought unwelcome human contact. Emily Goodman, a media strategist in Orange, N.J., said her cats, Dude and Frankie, would prefer more social distance, especially from her 5-year-old son, Reuben. Without access to his friends, Reuben wants the cats to be his playmates; they do not oblige.
“We had to explain to him that the cats have their own lives and they just can’t snuggle on demand,” Goodman said.
The cats have expressed their discontent by vomiting more and scratching the sunroom couch with gusto, Goodman said. They have taken to sequestering upstairs until Reuben goes to bed, at which time they curl up on the couch with Goodman and her husband.
“When I used to leave for work, I’d tell Dude, ‘Enjoy the silence,’” Goodman said. “Now there is no silence, and our cats are not happy.”
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Lucy, the cockatiel, is now on hormones to prevent egg-laying, and at the advice of their veterinarian, the Nowka family is encouraging more independent behavior, removing her from their shoulders as soon she lands and covering her cage at 5 p.m.
Pets need safe places and stimulating activities — with and without humans, behaviorists and trainers say.
Use food puzzles that make animals work for dinner, some experts suggest. Cats might enjoy heated blankets and a window perch. For dogs, consider taking breaks to run through sit, stay and other basic commands, said Laura Sharkey, owner of WOOFS! Dog Training Center in Arlington.
“Whatever parlor tricks you have, do them now,” she said. “It will give the dog the same amount of enrichment, fulfillment and mental exercise as advanced tricks.”
At the same time, pet owners shouldn’t set attention and activity levels that won’t be maintained when working-from-home ends, said Mikel Delgado, a cat behavior researcher at the University of California at Davis. And because work needs to get done now, she said, owners should avoid working in areas their pets associate with cuddling and playing.
If the dog is barking during the Zoom meeting you’re doing from the couch, it may be because he considers it his play zone, she said. “All the cues are different now,” Delgado said.
Maria Bianculli, a federal consultant, is already worried about how Lemon, her poodle-mix puppy, is going to take it when she returns to work and to her apartment in Washington. They’re spending the quarantine at her parents’ house on the Chesapeake Bay, taking so many walks that Lemon lies down in the driveway by afternoon, exhausted by all the exercise.
“He is having the time of his life, running around my parents’ big yard, hanging out with his people all day,” Bianculli said. “He won’t be used to being alone all day in an apartment or seeing strangers and other dogs.”
Now is the time to prepare for the possibility of separation anxiety, Alonso said.
“Make sure your pets have alone time,” she said. “Make something really good happen when you leave. If you start stuffing that Kong with mashed potatoes and roast beef every time you walk out the door, the dog is going to be like ‘Here’s your coat.’”
If you used to depart for work at a certain hour, go through the motions of gathering your bag, putting on your shoes and briefly leaving the house at that time, trainers say.
“Take a call from your car. Sit under a tree,” said Tracy Krulik, a Northern Virginia dog trainer who specializes in separation anxiety.
Dogs that were crated regularly before the pandemic should still spend some time alone in their crates, Sharkey said. “Crate training is about learning that being alone is OK, and sometimes, desirable,” she said.
Socializing puppies, even during a time of social distancing, should not be ignored, experts say. Kim Greco, a dog trainer who owns Paws & Possibilities in Annapolis, Md., and Staten Island, N.Y., suggests owners disguise themselves with a hat or coat, then walk outside and ring the doorbell. Got crutches? Use them. Fashion an indoor obstacle course with oven pans and broilers to mimic sidewalk grates, she said.
“Bring the world to your puppy so your puppy won’t be scared to go back into the world,” Sharkey said.
Jill Graf and Cider, her 12-year-old Labrador retriever, have already gone through the tough adjustment to the human resuming work. Graf, a nurse practitioner hospitalist in Phoenix, became sick in late March and spent two weeks isolated in her bedroom — away from her family, but with the dog.
Graf returned to her job at a hospital after testing negative for COVID-19, and she said Cider made his dissatisfaction clear with a single poop outside the closed bedroom door.
He “grew very, very needy in the sanctity of the bedroom,” Graf said. “He’s traveled with me, even worked at a small hospital with me, so he’s used to stress, but this is a new level. I was terrified in that room. He picked up on it.”
She now leaves the door open. Cider sleeps most days on the bed, exiting only to wait for her return at the garage or front door.
“When he’s not with me, he’s very anxious,” she said.
Graf shouldn’t feel guilty for having turned to Cider for comfort, Greco said.
“This is new for all of us. I encourage people to let their dogs help them make it easier. They want to help,” Greco said. “That means we have to be there for them, too. Now is the time to reinforce behaviors we want to see and can continue when this all over.”