Despite coronavirus figures rising to an all-time high in recent months, restrictions in the UK have been lifted, meaning that many people are gradually returning to their offices – whether that be in a hybrid format or full-time.
Whilst this move back to ‘normal life’ has been welcomed by many, for the millions of pets acquired over lockdown this change will mean they are being left alone for the very first time.
"Many of our pets are now used to having us around all the time, while others have never known any different," says RSPCA pet welfare expert Samantha Gaines. "We have real concerns that life post-lockdown, both in terms of a new routine and spending time alone, could be really difficult for them to adjust to, which is why it’s so important that owners start to prepare them now."
So, what are the mental health signs customers should be looking out for and how can pharmacy teams help their furry friends?
The pet effect
It has long been established that having a pet can improve mental health. Indeed, 87 per cent of pet owners say owning a pet makes them mentally healthier, according to the 2021 'PAW Report', by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA).
Typically, this relationship goes both ways. In fact, the term 'the pet effect' represents the mutually beneficial relationship between people and animals that positively impacts the health and wellbeing of both species.
Poor mental health in their owners can, however, have a negative impact on a pet’s mood. Research suggests that animals are very capable of responding to human emotional expression and can sense how their owner is feeling, often mirroring their stress.
Nearly three quarters of UK dogs show signs of poor mental health and 74 per cent exhibit behaviour indicating anxiety or depression, according to a Guide Dogs poll. Yet, a quarter of UK dog-owners admit that they didn’t know a dog’s mental health could suffer.
"It’s an outdated viewpoint to think that dogs just need a walk or two a day to be content," says Dr Helen Whiteside, chief scientific officer at Guide Dogs. "Without different forms of mental stimulation, dogs can begin to show signs of behavioural issues, such as anxiety and frustration, which can have a huge impact on their mental wellbeing."
According to Dr Whiteside, providing a bit of variation helps to keep things interesting. Tips which can be passed on to pharmacy customers include:
- Creating food-based problem-solving puzzles
- Giving a dog a lick mat
- Taking them on a 'sniffari' walk. "The goal is just sniffing not necessarily walking. Dogs love to sniff and gather an incredible amount of information just by doing so," emphasises Julie Burgess, certified dog trainer and vet technician.
It is also important to remind customers that balance is essential. With increased mental stimulation, dogs will need quality sleep and downtime too.
Of course, lockdown made it easier for pet owners to dedicate more time to paying attention to their animal’s needs. Indeed, most pets will have adjusted to having their owners at home 24/7 and as owners go back to working outside the home, many pets will find this distressing.
This doesn’t just apply to dogs, as Ali Taylor, head of canine behaviour at Battersea explains: “While dogs are more likely to suffer from separation anxiety, cats can also find it stressful when their routine changes suddenly.”
Signs that a pet is experiencing separation-related problems include:
- Destructive behaviour – often targeted at the door the owner left the house from, as well as chewing and destroying furniture
- Noise – such as howling or barking
- Toileting – in the house.
Pharmacy teams can recommend customers take simple steps to introduce their pets to the idea of them spending more time on their own. For example, if they are working from home, they should start working in a different room or area to their pet. They can also build up time alone slowly – even if that means only closing the door for 30 seconds at first – and should make sure to reward good behaviour.
Top tips for customers with dogs
If possible, try to go home during lunch hour or ask a neighbour or friend to pop in to check on them.
Think about employing a dog walker or sending dogs to doggy day-care.
Make sure they have a wide range of toys available to them.
Take them on a walk or jog before going out for the day, leaving some time spare to give them lots of love. Customers should be wary, however, of walking them too near to their departure as they may start to associate fun walks with absence.
Spotify’s: ‘My Dog’s Favourite Podcast’ which has up to five hours of soothing sounds and friendly chats for a dog to listen to whilst they are alone.
Top tip for customers with cats
Make sure to buy them toys and scratch posts
Get a cat-sitter if you’re out longer than the average working day.
This will provide them with some companionship.
Videos are available on YouTube and can be left playing in the background.
Cats might have become accustomed to having someone home all day to let them in and out of the house. Suddenly restricting this might be confusing, so it could be a good time to install a cat flap.
Pharmacy teams can also advise customers check in every once in a while for ‘hidden’ signs that their pet may be distressed by filming them when they’re out.
It is important for pet owners to be able to distinguish between separation-related behaviour and other behavioural disorders with similar signs. This is possible by telling if the behaviour is in response to them leaving the house and is displayed soon after they leave. If this is not the case, the behaviour may be related to something entirely different.
General pet health
As well as their mental health, pharmacy staff can also be on hand to support customers in other key health considerations for pets.
It’s also important for customers to keep up to date on more cosmetic treatments for their pets. Aspects such as teeth cleaning and grooming play an important role in a pets overall wellbeing and mental health.
Pet dental care is important to reduce the chance of pets developing gum disease. Indeed, gum disease is five times more common in dogs than in humans, according to the Animal Trust, and if left untreated it can cause cavities and gum problems – even causing a pet to lose their teeth.
The RSPCA advise to starting cleaning every day at the puppy stage so that dogs grow accustomed to it. If the owner hasn’t done this, staff should advise them to gradually introduce it by regularly having their finger near their dog’s mouth and introducing brushing.
A vet can advise customers on proper technique, but the pharmacy can supply special dog or cat toothpastes as well as toothbrushes that go over a finger to make it easier for the owner.
Regular pet grooming helps to build a bond between pets and their owners. The process is mutually beneficial as not only can it be very calming for owners, but it also acts as a massage for the pet, improving blood flow around their body.
Removing dead and loose hair keeps coats smooth and tangle-free and also helps owners detect any fleas or ticks. Pharmacies can stock a range of different brushes suitable for pets which should be used in gentle strokes, following the direction of hair growth.
Staff should advise customers to brush their cat or dogs’ hair regularly so that it doesn’t become matted. The PDSA recommends once a week for short-haired breeds, a few times a week for medium-haired breeds and once a day for long-haired breeds.
Hayfever in pets
Alongside suffering from their mental health, many customers won’t be aware that their pet can also suffer from hayfever. Symptoms that a pet may be struggling include:
- Licking/biting paws
- Excessive scratching
- Redness of the skin, especially around the eyes and ears and in between the paws
- Shaking their head
- Rubbing their ears or muzzle
It is important that pharmacy teams do not recommend medications to pet owners without specific prescriptions as many animal medicines can be dangerous in the wrong doses or for certain species. Teams can, however, offer some measures that customers can take to help reduce symptoms which include:
- Check the pollen forecast each day so they know what to expect
- Identify which types of pollens their pet is most affected by. Once this has been achieved, find other areas to walk with fewer pollen triggers
- Avoid dog-walking in the early morning or late evening as this is when the pollen count is at its highest. The best time is before dawn, in the late afternoon or early evening
- Keep dogs on a lead near grass
- Wipe their paws and muzzle after every walk. Sensitive baby wipes are ideal for this or recommend special wipes designed for pets
- Keep up with grooming and make sure to wash pets and their bedding weekly
- A skin supplement or oil could be added to their food which may help to improve the strength of their skin barrier to pollen and reduce symptoms of the allergy.