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From “behavioural issues” to separation anxiety and surrenders, some Toronto pet owners are reassessing their quarantine companions
While pretty much everybody has been having a rough time during the pandemic, some say one demographic that has been thriving is pets.
Dogs, cats and all other affection- and attention- loving animals have reaped the benefits of quarantines and working from home, lapping up constant company with their homebound owners. But as daily schedules, socializing and travelling slowly return, pet parents and animal organizations are worrying pets may be left behind, in more ways than one.
At the start of the pandemic, animal rescue organizations across Canada saw a surge in demand for pet adoptions as more families spent time at home and people living alone sought out companionship. A year later, pets raised and trained during the pandemic who have grown accustomed to non-stop attention will have to adjust to a new normal. Animal experts say that means pets already struggling with separation anxiety will struggle even more.
Even more worrying is the potential for pet “returns,” as owners go back to the office, making it more difficult to care for a pet. Toronto rescue organizations are preparing for an increase in pet surrenders, and they say that if the past few months are any indication, it’s possible returning a pet could become a problem this summer.
For many, pets have been a lifeline during a time of extreme emotional and mental distress. A UK study investigating human-animal relationships found 90 per cent of pet owners said their pet helped them cope better emotionally during the first lockdown. But the reopening is turning the pandemic pet boom into a bust for some owners.
Maria Rossi adopted a dog during the pandemic because she knew having one would provide her with much-needed companionship and love after separating from her husband and moving into a smaller condo. Rossi has had dogs her entire life and originally felt confident in the decision. Now, her dog Noah, she says, is just a “different character” from other dogs she had growing up.
“It’s like having a little baby all over again,” she says. “He’s just a little rascal. Yesterday, I came home and left my flip flops at the front door for five minutes while I went to the bedroom, and I came back and he had ripped my shoes to shreds.”
Rossi says he constantly wants attention and will bark for an hour straight, and despite her best efforts she hasn’t been able to curb his impulses. She also acknowledges Noah is a very sociable dog and worries that being around her alone isn’t as fulfilling for him.
For the first time in her life, Rossi says she is considering giving up her dog.
“I feel like we’re mismatched,” she says. “I just feel really bad about it because I feel like he deserves that attention, he deserves all that fun, but I can’t give it to him right now.”
In early 2021, a troubling trend emerged following the flurry of COVID-19 pet adoptions – more and more animal rescue organizations were reporting higher rates of surrender, return or re-homing requests from pet owners. BBC News documented spikes in Google searches for “sell a puppy” and “selling a dog” in January, and USA Today reported a higher number of pet returns than normal among shelters across the United States.
Canada has yet to see a definite trend in pet returns. The pet surrender situation varies between organizations.
“Usually when puppies reach around the 10- to 12-month mark, if they haven’t received proper training or proper socialization, some owners can become frustrated and then the puppy goes back to the shelter,” says Natalia Hanson, media representative for Humane Canada, Canada’s membership-based federation of SPCAs and humane societies. “But we haven’t seen that happen yet.”
However, Shirley Cook, founder of GTA pet adoption organization Paws and Tails Adoptions, has experienced more requests for pet surrenders over the past few months than in the 20 years she’s been running the business. “I don’t think I would be exaggerating to say that I get at least 10 to 15 calls a week,” she says.
Cook is used to these kinds of calls a few months after Easter and Christmas from parents who bought their kids a pet as a present. But the influx of “COVID pets,” as she calls them, is of an entirely different magnitude.
“They just don’t want them anymore,” Cook suggests. “I’m really against Kijiji for this reason. They’re selling animals constantly and people are paying big dollars. And then they realize these animals are not vaccinated, or three or four months down the line they go into heat, and the owner can’t be bothered.”
Cook says no one who has adopted a rescue animal from her organization has tried to return their pets because she has a process to ensure that people adopting from her are in it for the long run. The calls she gets for pet surrenders have been from people who get their pets elsewhere.
At the Toronto Humane Society, communications assistant manager Hannah Sotropa says that based on the data they’ve collected from the beginning of 2021 to now, behavioural issues, medical issues and death of the owner are the top three reasons for surrender requests. The organization received 64 and 66 surrender requests in January and February, respectively, which then jumped slightly to 89 in March and 76 in April.
At Dog Tales, an animal rescue and sanctuary in King City, representative Cassandra Ferrante says they’ve seen similar reasons for surrender requests. When it comes to pandemic adoptions, she says behavioural issues in particular are a popular reason people turn to the organization for support.
“Dogs start to exhibit behavioural issues, and they start changing once they become an adult dog,” Ferrante says. “Once their dog is no longer a puppy, and they’re about a year and a half to two years old, that’s the most popular age that we get surrenders.”
Rossi believes her dog Noah has a needy personality, but she knows his behaviour has been exacerbated by the pandemic – and the fact that she is with her pet 24/7.
Now that Rossi is working almost full-time hours, she worries about scheduling around Noah.
“I may only make plans on specific days, because I’ll try and work around so he’s not on his own for a full day,” she explains. “That would make me feel bad. My whole life will revolve around him because I don’t like leaving him longer than five and a half hours.”
Laura Bye, founder of Toronto rescue Save Our Scruff, says codependency and separation anxiety between people and pets is a major cause for concern because life in isolation has reinforced behaviours that aren’t necessarily helpful for pets.
“We changed our whole educational process for getting people ready before adopting a pet, because we were very cognizant of potential future concerns,” Bye explains.
Save Our Scruff has launched separation anxiety seminars to teach owners about what it’s like for dogs to live at home with them and how to get them adjusted to a new schedule.
“We specifically promote a very healthy relationship with your dog where it’s not codependent,” Bye says, adding it’s important to consider what your dog needs from you as much as you think about what you need from your dog.
“It has to go both ways, right? Some people get dogs and then try and take them everywhere because they want a dog that can get them out of the house,” she says. “But did you check in with your dog if that’s what they wanted? How much exercise does your dog need? Is your dog nervous in your environment and are you exposing them to new things way too quickly?”
Jessica Meza adopted a dog last November in the hopes he would give her emotional support after months of isolation. Her dog Frankie has saved her life throughout the past few months, she says. But she also acknowledges they’ve both developed what she calls really bad separation anxiety.
“He follows me everywhere – to the bathroom,” she says. “He comes with me inside of the shower.”
Meza has started to worry because she is starting a new job soon and will likely be going back to school – in person.
“I’m definitely worried about how he’s going to adjust to that, too. When I do leave him home alone, he never destroys anything, so I’m not worried about that,” she says. “But I don’t want him to feel lonelier.
“At the height of the pandemic, we literally spent 24/7 together, no breaks from each other,” Meza explains. “So when I am gone for five minutes, he freaks out. I don’t think that’s going to change because I was such a big part of his first few months of being alive.”
Still, Frankie has been life-changing, Meza says.
“I haven’t had any sort of depressive episodes or any panic attacks since I got him. Obviously I do get sad, but it’s never to the degree that it was before.”
Meza says she knows she needs to spend more time away from Frankie to get them both better adjusted to post-pandemic life. “But I just can’t bring myself to do it,” she says.
It’s important to acknowledge that when we look at concerns like separation anxiety for pets, it all ultimately comes from a place of love, explains Courtney Campbell, a veterinary surgeon and advisor for DOGTV.
“During the pandemic, a lot of people bonded very closely to their dogs, and the reality is dogs, likewise, bonded to their families more,” he says.
But in the same way that pet owners may have unconsciously encouraged this behaviour out of love for their pets, Campbell says it’s now time to work on making adjustments for their pets out of love for them as well.
“Build a spirit of independence and foster an environment of autonomy so that they feel comfortable being by themselves,” he explains. That includes spending increasingly longer periods of time away from the house without your pet, spending time in a different room than your pet while they’re engaged with something else like a toy or a treat and getting your pet on a more regular schedule that may have become looser during the pandemic.
Bringing your pet everywhere might have been what some people needed during the pandemic, but that behaviour will only make the transition period even more difficult for your pets if they’re not properly prepared.
“There’s a variety of ways you can love your pet, whether it’s being a good steward for their health care, getting them good exercise or just being there for them,” says Campbell. “But now a different way to love them is to prepare them for your departure and what they’re about to experience,” he adds.
“Pets are there to give you that unconditional love that a human can’t give you,” Rossi says. After a long and hard pandemic, it’s time to reciprocate that unconditional love by giving them what they need, instead of what you want.