Helping a New Dog or Cat Adjust to Family Life

Did you decide to adopt a new cat or dog during Quarantine? Here are some things you should consider when adding to your family and tips on helping pets adjust.

A dog sitting in the grass

Lucky Leo has found someone to love.

His new family is #builtbyadoption, as Regina Dick says proudly. A little more than five years ago, Dick and husband, Dayle, adopted their son Liam. And for the past two, Liam’s begged for a dog.

“Every little boy should have a dog,” Dick says.

When a fellow nurse friend tagged her on Facebook with a photo of 1-year-old Leo at the Do Only Good Animal Rescue in Pontiac, she knew instantly the adorable pup with a big head was a perfect fit. And when they discovered the shelter was just across the parking lot from the courthouse where they finalized Liam’s adoption, they doubly knew adopting Leo was right.

“Oh, that’s really cool, he’s adopted just like me,” Liam told them.

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The timing worked out just as perfectly since she was about to have two weeks off as the quarantine hit and Dayle’s hours were cut, giving the family time to bond with and train Leo.

But like many families who adopted and fostered pets to help clear the shelters and provide comfort during the Stay-At-Home Order, Dick worried her and Dayle’s long shifts at work when things got back to normal might be a problem with having a dog.

Luckily, Leo likes chilling in his kennel, as content as can be, she says. So, Dick says she isn’t worried.

Thinking ahead is a step Veterinarian Andy Rollo hopes all new pet owners who adopted during the pandemic took.

“I think it’s great that we’re seeing so many new pet owners,” says Rollo, co-owner of Madison Veterinary Hospital and Walnut Lake Animal Hospital. “One of the concerns, though, is that like Christmas puppies when January arrives, will a pet adopted during the lockdown still fit into the family’s life when school and work resume?”

The need is growing again

With Facebook and Instagram feeds filling up with cute pup and kitty pics, is FOMO filling your mind over not getting one for the quarantine? It’s not too late.

While you might miss out on extended time at home with your new pal, the shelters are starting to refill with more animals, so you should be able to find one. Keep in mind that demand remains high. Shelters are seeing five to 10 inquiries when new pets are added to shelter websites. Keep checking your local animal shelter’s website or try Petfinder.com, which can locate adoptable pets near you.

Still, experts caution families to take some time when finding a pet.

While it can be hard to look beyond the cuteness in the heat of the moment, families should make sure they can commit to what it means to have a pet long term. That includes medical costs, training and busy, changing family schedules that might happen over the pet’s lifetime, says Emily Klehm, chair of a consortium of animal welfare organizations.

“Some folks expect a dog in a box. They just want to unbox their new pet and have it be perfect,” she says.

That’s rarely the case; pets need to get comfortable with their new family and the new family needs to understand their new family member’s evolving personality, Klehm says.

Her best advice: Do the research to understand what it means to add a pet to your life, then give the new pet time to adjust.

Remember what your family’s lifestyle was like before the pandemic and consider how a new pet will fit into that lifestyle, Klehm says. Active breeds of dogs are good if families are outside a lot, but if your life was more sedentary or spent inside before the pandemic and you return to it, a border collie or working breed is not going to be a good fit.

Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions at the shelter, she says. For those on the fence about whether a pet works in their lives, Klehm suggests looking for a pet in foster care instead because the foster family can provide so much more information about each animal in a home setting.

Klehm’s last piece of advice: Be patient with the shelter or rescue group, which is dealing with much higher volume than ever before. It’s hard to get to all the phone calls and emails immediately.

“We’re all trying to do the best thing for a pet,” she says.

What’s Next? Tips To Help Your Pal

Sydney Bartson Queen, an animal behavior counselor of the ASPCA Behavioral Sciences Team, has tips to keep pets happy as family life returns to normal.

“When our regular work and school routines commence again, your new dog or cat may be left confused and lonely once everyone is rushing out the door instead of spending time at home,” Queen says. “Even while you and your family are home, start to prepare your pet now and designate time for them to spend enjoyable time alone throughout the day.”

She suggests families start by taking a walk or doing yard work without your pet. Start small and gradually increase the time you are apart from them.

Create happier alone time

Create a cozy, inviting place for your dog or cat to nap away from all the activity of remote work and school. You can put on some TV for auditory and visual stimulation, soothing music or the radio. Cats, in particular, really enjoy watching TV shows that feature animals.

When giving your pet time away from you, offer your dog tasty chews, such as bully sticks, tendons, scapulas and cheek rolls, to keep him busy.

There are many free game apps for cats to play with on their own. You can also find battery-operated toys that may keep your cat busy and happy on his or her own.

If you notice your pets showing signs of distress when you leave them alone, contact a behavior professional for assistance. Many are offering virtual appointments.

Boredom busters

Your pet may be used to midday play sessions or walks as a result of the extra time at home. Ramping down that exercise and interaction due to sudden schedule changes could leave your pet with pent up energy. Boredom and excess energy are two common reasons for undesirable behavior in pets. A few things to try:

For dogs:

  • Use a snuffle mat for offering treats/dry food or stuff a puzzle toy with food like plain yogurt, peanut butter or their meal for a fun challenge. Cardboard boxes, paper towel rolls, PVC pipes with holes drilled into the sides, paper bags with food or plastic jugs can be used as well.
  • Set up a scavenger hunt so your pup can put his nose to work. Hide treats around a room in partial view.
  • Engage your dog in short, empowering training exercises such as touching her nose to your hand or a particular object or learning “sit,” “down” and “come.” If your pup already knows the basics, look for trick training books or videos to learn more advanced skills like “spin” or “roll over.”

For cats:

  • Offer their meals or treats out of food puzzle toys.
  • Provide objects for them to explore, such as cardboard boxes, paper shopping bags (with the handles cut off), bottle caps, packing paper and toys that encourage them to investigate.
  • Train your cat to learn useful behaviors and fun tricks, like “sit,” “come,” hand target (touching their nose to your hand), “shake” and “fetch.”
  • Position bird and squirrel feeders outside windows where your cat can observe animals coming and going during the day or even try playing videos of birds and squirrels on your TV, computer or phone.

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