Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, September 3, 2021

Home Alone 21: Why is my person not here?

The bill comes due on pandemic pets as they now need boarding, therapy

Realtor Thomas Williams interacts his new kitten Ro Ro, who was adopted through The Catio Nashville. - Photo by Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

It was March 2020, and you thought you’d only be staying at home a few weeks. When weeks turned into months you got a little lonely. So you adopted a dog.

Things were going along swimmingly. You played with the dog. You took care of the dog. You walked the dog. You were with the dog 24/7, and it was a glorious thing.

Then the vaccine came and, with it, the ability to start returning to normal. You looked forward to socializing with friends and returning to work. You left the house. Oh-oh.

The dog – let’s call him Fido – got confused. After more than a year of togetherness, you were now gone some of the time. Fido became anxious. He started scratching at the door, thinking that would bring you back through it. He decided to use the couch as a personal chew toy. After all, you weren’t there to entertain him and he decided to entertain himself.

Professionals call them pandemic puppies. And some of them need serious help. But the good news is that help is available to acclimate your new best friend to going out in the world, perhaps for the first time.

‘How much joy she brings’

Pet adoption soared during the more than a year of staying home. Shelter Animals Count, which tracks around 500 organizations nationwide that rescue pets, found there were 26,000 more pet adoptions in 2020, an increase of 15%. The New Yorker reported that BluePearl, a veterinarian network, reported a 20% increase in visits, more than half were from new pet owners. Chewy’s sales jumped by 47%, Petco’s by 11%.

Some people adopted pets because they were lonely. Others found they suddenly had more time than usual to devote to a pet. But Money Magazine found a huge number – 72% – were just fulfilling a longtime desire to become pet owners.

Thomas Williams, a Nashville Realtor, was one of those people. About three months ago, a new cat named Ro Ro came to live with Williams.

“I knew I would like having a pet but not as much as I do,” he says. “It’s amazing how much joy she brings. She’s a cat that acts like a dog. She fetches. She loves people and wants to be around people.”

Williams adopted Ro Ro from The Catio, an adoption center that specializes in felines. He spent a lot of time there to make sure the fit between owner and pet was just right.

“It’s kind of like try it before you buy it,” he adds. “I went to the place multiple times and there are lots of cats. I wanted to make sure she liked me and that we bonded. She sat on my lap for three hours. She knows she’s important to me. I think they just want to be loved and she knows that I care for her and will protect her. I never thought I would be like this. I’m pretty smitten with her.”

Tom and Marida Stearns, a retired couple who live in Nolensville, had been pet owners before but the loss of one of their fur babies prompted them to adopt again during the pandemic.

“We’ve always had animals so we missed them,” Marida says. “It took your mind off of all the other issues going on, and you got to have something fun to do.”

Neither the Stearns nor Williams have had trouble with acclimating their pets to a more open atmosphere, although Ro Ro does show a lot of enthusiasm for welcoming Williams home.

“When I’m here, she’s usually in the same room I’m in,” he explains. “But I’ve also been out of town since I’ve had her. She definitely loves having me here. She knows when she hears gravel that I’m coming and she’ll be waiting at the back door.”

But it hasn’t been easy for many pets that have no experience in “the real world.”

Therapy for all

Dr. Beth Strickler is a board-certified veterinary behaviorist practicing in Nashville. She is one of fewer than 100 veterinarians in the United States certified in this relatively new field. She’s seen a spike in pets – particularly dogs – needing some help.

“The biggest issue we’re seeing is related to what we call pandemic puppies,” she says. “During the time everyone was quarantined, some of these dogs knew nothing about the world. For many of them, we were seeing increases in fears and anxiety that we haven’t seen typically.

“Some of these dogs and cats have not had their families leave for a year. They don’t have the skills to be alone. We’re seeing some of them really struggle.”

For these pets, separation anxiety is very real.

“The dog has a panic attack when people are gone,” Strickler says. “It generally starts within 30 minutes of when the person is gone.” Some of the manifestations of that panic may include urinating or defecating in the home, destruction of furniture and clawing at doors.

She says there are two main issues with pandemic pets – staying inside and going outside.

“We’re still seeing animals that are very unsettled when their owners are gone,” she adds. “Some of them need medication. Some just need some skills on just figuring out how to be by themselves. Some of these pets don’t know what to do with themselves because they’ve been entertained by their families. We try to educate. What is your pet’s day going to look like when you’re not there?

“The other issue is with these pets who didn’t have exposure to the outside world and we see a variety of things. The pets don’t know how to navigate the outside world. We’ve seen pets that are afraid to go outside.”

Kym Iffert, the animal care and programs director at Crossroads Pets Shop & Adopt in Nashville, has seen similar issues. “If they weren’t getting that early socialization they’re going to be nervous and anxious when they’re thrust into new things,” she says. “Dogs find ways to entertain themselves. It may be destroying the couch or scratching at doors.”

New pet owners might find the difficult behavior of their pets daunting, but Strickler, Iffert and Celina Batlle, president of Tennessee’s SPCA, have some comforting words of advice.

Actually, one. Training.

“I always make sure that training the dogs makes owners understand the dogs more,” Batlle says. The SPCA has a trainer who goes to the owner’s house to train dogs adopted from the organization. It’s paid off. The return rate of pets to the SPCA is 1%.

“Training is so important,” she says. “It’s like being a behaviorist.”

In Strickler’s practice, both the owner and the pet are seen together. “We have to have a relationship with both the person and the pet,” she says. “We bring in the family members and the pet. We gather videos and an extensive information form. We’re really teaching the owners how to teach the pets using medical intervention to reduce the concerns.”

Iffert, who is a certified trainer herself, stresses pet owners need to do their homework before hiring a trainer. “There are some amazing dog trainers and behavior people out there, and some who aren’t so great.

“Make sure you’re checking. It’s always good to make sure that if you’re working on behavior concerns that you’re finding the right people with the right qualifications.”

Other costs

Now that workers are getting back into the office there are other considerations involving caring for a pet and some of them can get expensive.

Some other costs to consider as you head back to work:

If you don’t want to leave Fido alone all day, dog walkers are the solution. At Nashville Dog Walkers, you can opt for $21 for a weekday visit, $26 for a night or weekend visit and $38 for two visits a day. The walkers have a scanning system so you know when they arrive and leave. They’ll even send a photo and update.

Most pet owners need to board their animals when they leave for vacation. Generally, the cost hovers around $40-$50 a night, and some have pretty luxurious amenities. Camp Bow Wow in Nashville provides individual cozy cabins and a nightly campfire treat for their four-legged clients. My Second Home in Franklin also has doggie cabins that also can feature a flat-screen television and a custom-padded bed.

For the best food and treats for your pet rely on your veterinarian for recommendations.

If you’re concerned about the cost of emergency veterinary services or a major illness, you might consider pet insurance. ValuePenguin surveyed the 11 largest pet insurance companies and found the average cost per month was about $50 for dogs and $29 for cats for policies that cover both illnesses and accidents.

When Tom and Marida Stearns adopted Baxter they were already well aware of the costs of caring for a pet. “It is just like having a baby,” Tom acknowledges. “It’s all encompassing. He’s taken over our lives but in a good way.

“It is a huge investment of time, energy and money. It’s not something to be taken lightly. And that may be the surprise for new pet owners during COVID.”