How coronavirus is impacting our pets and how they'll cope when we return to the office

The coronavirus measures mean more time spent at home with pets and using dog-walking as a reason to leave the house. But how will animals - and humans - respond when the restrictions are eased?

Cat at a table

People around the world are spending more time with their pets as they work from home. Source: Twitter/@therealbradbabs

Getting to spend more time at home with our pets has been one benefit of the coronavirus measures put in place in Australia. 

But once workers return to the office, their beloved animals could become upset with limited attention.

Annette Lee has spent a lot of time with her four-year-old miniature labradoodle Wookie in recent weeks.

The freelance journalist and swim coach was previously in and out of her home in Sydney while working, but the impacts of COVID-19 have upended both her and her pet's typical routines.

Annette Lee and dog Wookie
Annette Lee and her labradoodle, Wookie. Source: Supplied

"Sometimes it's like, 'are you okay, shall we go and get the ball? Let's cheer you up with the ball'," she told SBS News. 

"There is definitely an increase in [that feeling of] 'I've got to make you happy'.

"And then on those days when I'm not coping very well because I haven't got much work, he will not leave my side ... looking at me saying 'you okay? Do you want a cuddle?'" 

How have pets been coping with the lockdown?

University of Sydney animal welfare lecturer Anne Fawcett said some cats have been behaving differently because their owners are more likely to be at home.

"Quite a few of my clients have commented that their cats are less impressed that they now have a human in their territory," she said.

"My own cat now sleeps in another room when I work from home, though he also demands dinner earlier than he would normally be fed." 

Ms Fawcett also warned against overfeeding and over-exercising pets during the lockdown. 

"We are seeing some dogs that are exhausted from multiple walks, and some with heat stress because they are being walked in the middle of the day," she said.

"We've also seen a lot more animals gaining weight because their owners are home often sharing table scraps with them or feeding them extra treats."  

How can you keep you and your pet safe?

Although dog walking has been a chance to socialise with others, the RSPCA has recommended still staying one-and-a-half metres away from people. 

The animal welfare group has also suggested handwashing after touching animals to maintain hygiene standards.

Last month, the Australian Veterinary Association emphasised the main risk of COVID-19 infection is between humans, not animals, and said it is committed to animal wellbeing during the outbreak.

Its president Dr Julia Crawford has asked pet owners not to compromise the safety of their animals.

"The welfare of your pet is as much of a priority for our profession as it is for you," she said. 

But she is also hoping the awareness of the outbreak will lead to better treatment of animals in the future. 

"One thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted is that animal welfare, human wellbeing, and the environment are inextricably linked," she said. 

How will returning to the office impact your pet?

Applied animal behaviourist Dr Kate Mornement has been advising people to prepare their pets for less contact before heading back to the office after the COVID-19 restrictions ease.  

"They tend to associate us with everything good in their life," she said. 

"You know, we feed our pets, we spend time with them, we pat them, we take them for walks, we play with them, so when we're home their life tends to be a lot better than when we're not," she said.

"So what may happen when a lot of us return to work is that the pets experience anxiety because we're no longer there." 

Ms Lee recognises separation issues may arise for her and Wookie. 

"I think dog owners and cat owners are just going to have to be aware that their animals will miss them when they go," she said. 

"I certainly will. If I had my way I'd take him everywhere with me, but as I'm a swim coach, he's not very welcome in the swimming pool." 

How can you prepare pets for change?

Some of the strategies include reduced attention and fewer walks for dogs to avoid a sudden cutback which can cause distress.

"We really need to consider our pets' wellbeing, and if we don't go about gradually getting them used to us not being there fulltime, it's going to be harder to resolve once we're at work fulltime," Dr Mornement said. 

"So putting in that extra little bit of effort now will pay off for many pet owners down the track."

Dr Mornement has encouraged pet owners to offer animals rewards like toys and treats when they are not with people, to show they can be happy when alone.

Is now a good time to adopt a pet?

Ms Fawcett said the lockdown was a perfect time to settle new pets.

"We have seen a large number of new puppies and kittens and animals adopted from shelters. This is excellent," she said.

In the United States, the anti-cruelty group Animal Wellness Action has also seen a surge in adoptions but has reported many people abandoning animals at shelters when they can't care for them. 

"The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly created a shift in the manner in which we interact with our pets in the US," the group's Marty Irby said.

"But I believe Americans have become much closer to their pets and have a greater appreciation for them, especially those of us who are single, at home, and having little, if any, human interaction."

There has also been a surge of animal adoptions around Australia and the extra access to animals has made a difference to people's lives, Mr Irby said. 

"I’ve always found dogs and horses to be very calming for me, personally, and that’s amplified during this time."

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at  

6 min read
Published 25 April 2020 at 8:37pm
By Stephanie Corsetti