Will our pets suffer when we go back to work? We ask the expert

Animal behaviour specialist Ryan Neile on how to get pets used to not being able to sit on our laps all day

Like many other Britons – a whopping 3.2 million to be precise – I welcomed a pet into my home during the pandemic. Since then, wherever I go in the house, my cat is sure to follow: she joins me on Zoom calls and even at dinner, taking her seat on the spare chair. But as more employees return to places of work, how will their pets be affected? And will they ever forgive us for leaving them? I spoke to Ryan Neile, head of behaviour at animal charity Blue Cross.

Hi Ryan! As I was leaving for work the other day, I saw my cat staring at me intensely from the window. Was that a look of betrayal in her eyes?
I don’t think cats feel betrayal per se, but they can form really strong attachments.

And they say cats are supposed to be aloof …
Some are, some aren’t. All pets are individuals. Part of my job is to inform owners how to correctly interpret problem behaviours. If we encourage intense, unbalanced relationships, problems occur.

How so?
At the beginning of the pandemic we saw a surge in cases where pets were biting. They were getting too much attention from owners who were suddenly at home, so the defensive, natural response is a bite to say: “Leave me alone.” Also, for pandemic puppies there wasn’t much opportunity for socialisation, so you end up with adult dogs with a lifelong fear of everyday situations.

What are the signs your pet isn’t coping?
Inappropriate toileting. Destructive behaviour. A classic is a dog ripping up a pillow. It’s because chewing releases endorphins that help them relax if they’re anxious. Under no circumstances should people punish their pet for that.

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How can we make returning to work easier on our furry friends?
Incrementally expose them to you being away. Dress like you’re going to the office, pick your keys up, put deodorant on. Then go to a different room and close the door so they have the experience of not being able to access you. Start with a short time and build up. That can help them understand: “I can’t be on your lap all day long.”

I didn’t do any of that with my cat. She seems OK …
She probably is; a lot of pets are resilient and adapt quickly. I see the exceptions.

Have there been a lot of shelter admissions recently?
We’re seeing people come to us saying their cat, dog or rabbit isn’t fitting in with their lifestyle or they’re having issues, so they want to rehome.

That’s sad.
I don’t think so. I feel quite strongly that rehoming a pet that doesn’t fit with your lifestyle is a really brave thing to do. It’s putting the pet first. If you got a collie during lockdown and now you can spend only 20 minutes on their walk, that pet is going to be unfulfilled.

But what if the pet doesn’t get a good home? There isn’t someone for every pet.
At the shelter, we can work on problem behaviours. We have all sorts of animals, and you can bet that if we have a one-eyed cat or an elderly dog that can barely walk, someone will walk in and fall in love with them.


Coco Khan

The GuardianTramp

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