When Melbournean Annie O’Donnell used to come home from work, her sausage dog, Ziggy, was excited to see her. However, since the shutdown, he’s “crying and shaking his body for a good five minutes.”
“He even does it for short periods of time, like a five-minute pop for shops,” O’Donnell said.
“I was really worried about leaving him for long periods before Covid, but now I’m so used to him by my side, I feel weird without him. I feel guilty knowing he has the worst separation anxiety as well as missing it.”
Three-year-old Ziggy is one of many “epidemic puppies” suffering from separation anxiety as lockdown restrictions ease and owners return to the office and socialize more – leading to a surge in demand for pet health and wellness products.
Dr. Lucy Asher, a veterinary surgeon at Green Cross Fits, said she had seen many pandemic pups who were not left on their own or learned independence, which was provoking pet owners to head to the market for help.
“There are also many dogs who were happy to be left on their own but have adapted to the constant presence of their owners,” she said.
“We also see a rise in aggression due to a lack of socialization during the critical period of socialization rather than during puppy classes.”
Last year, $269.8 million was spent on alternative health treatments for dogs — including acupuncture and massage. Now, anxiety and calming products like “relaxation care” treatments, home diffusers, on-the-go collars and “thunder shirts” are flooding the market.
Australian retailer Petbarn has seen a 59% increase in purchases of anxiety and calm products since Victoria exited lockdown, and a 51% increase since New South Wales exit restrictions.
High-tech communication options are also being promoted to help dogs manage separation anxiety on their own. A new product – coined by DogPhone – uses a soft ball that, when moved, allows canines to contact their owners from home.
A spokeswoman for the Australian Veterinary Association, Dr Isabel Rich, said managing pet mental health would be an “ongoing issue” as people return to work and socialization.
“Little puppies are not used to periods of separation, and the transition can be difficult from having a 24/7 owner’s home to working 40+ hours a week,” she said. “This is likely to be an ongoing problem and is likely to grow.”
The sudden rise in the number of Australians seeking animals for companionship during lockdowns has also contributed to the growth of the pet grooming industry. About 69% of Australian households now own at least one pet, due in large part to the increase in dog ownership in the past two years. This, along with the trend towards “pet humanization” – where furry friends are seen as family members – has seen pet spending boom in the past five years.
Pet health and wellness products have been a booming industry since before the pandemic. But the lockdowns caused by the Covid virus have led to an increase in the number of parents working from home, which has led to more growth in the market, especially for delicious meals and desserts.
Animal Medicines Australia has estimated that dog owners have spent $20.5 billion on their pets during the pandemic, while cat owners have spent $10.2 billion.
IBISWorld predicts that while spending on pets will continue to rise in the coming years, competition will also intensify, due to increased demand for high-quality pet food and preventative healthcare medications for increasingly indulged pets.
O’Donnell said that since Covid, Ziggy has been a regular at the pet store, and she’s been “desperate” to get in any time she and her partner go through.
“I would say I go once every two weeks to ship,” she said. “Is my dog spoiled? Sure.”
Dr Sarah Zito, RSPCA Australia’s chief scientific officer, said the dramatic changes to routine closures could be “stressful” or “confusing” for dogs unaccustomed to being left alone, especially for dogs purchased during the pandemic.
Here are some expert tips to help pandemic puppies deal with separation:
Know that your dog will have more time alone, so gradually teach independent time. Start with five to 10 minutes with a tasty treat, and slowly increase the distance from your dog and the time they are left on their own. Some dogs will be more resilient than others – genes play a big role in their tendency to be anxious.
When leaving the house and returning, stay calm and calm to make the occasion as boring as possible. This teaches dogs that there is nothing to be excited about or worried about.
Use food and dessert puzzles that take time to eat – try pairing this with moving out of the house.
Consider using daily dog care or helping the family during the commute to work.
Slow down from working at home every day to working in the office full time, and try adjusting your home routine to be similar to what it would look like to return to work or school. This means feeding, exercising, and toileting your dog on a similar schedule.
When dogs are on their own, give them special treats to keep them occupied and build positive bonds with them, such as safe toys that they can cuddle, play with, or chew on.
If pets do not move well, see a vet to manage their behavior, as they may need medication to reduce anxiety. Signs of stress include going to the toilet in the house, howling, barking or whining, drooling and excessive drooling or panting.