If you’ve felt any of these things in the past six months, experts say you might be a dog. Indeed, dogs are feeling the emotional impacts of coronavirus just like their owners are, and it may be changing the way they act.
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For example, research published in The Journal of Pediatrics in June found that more children were visiting the ER as a result of dog bites since stay-at-home orders went into effect in March. The data out of Children’s Hospital Colorado showed that the rate of hospitalizations for dog bites shot upward when lockdowns went into effect and remained abnormally high even as these orders began to relax over time.
Cinnamon Dixon, associate professor of pediatrics at University of Colorado and an attending pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Colorado, said that while the researchers didn’t have national data from this period, she doubted the findings would prove unique to Colorado. According to 2019 data shared by the United States Postal Service during their annual “Dog Bite Awareness Week” in June, the state doesn’t usually rank among even the top ten “dog bite states.”
“The rate of dog bites increases in the summer, and increased dog bites happen when children have increased exposure to dogs,” Dixon, whose research focus is animal-human interaction and, specifically, dog bite prevention, told The Daily Beast. But she said it is notable—and in fact, “startling,”—that the measured increase was nearly three-fold, jumping from 4.7 for every 1,000 visits last April to 12 per 1,000 this year at the same time.
“It’s multifactorial,” Dixon said, but she believes some of those factors involve dogs’ heightened stress right now—and central to that, the emotional link between dogs and their owners.
The Secret Life of Pets
Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil, an animal behaviorist and veterinarian at Tufts University, said that to understand dogs’ behavioral changes, one must first understand that, like humans, they have lots of feelings.
“New research shows dogs and cats do have a rich emotional life,” Borns-Weil told the Daily Beast. “They feel fear. They can be impulsive and reactive. They can be angry,” she said. “There’s still a lot of disagreement about whether they feel so-called secondary emotions like jealousy, but the primacy emotions like anxiety, certainly.”
And as humans know, nearly half a year into a pandemic, it is a very anxious time.
Last year, a new study found that emotions could be transferable between dogs and their owners, and that this phenomenon of positive or negative “emotional contagion” grows more intense the longer a relationship lasts. Other recent research found that humans and their dogs tend to sync their long-term stress levels, as determined by measuring the cortisol concentrations in the hair of study participants from a cohort of human-and-canine pairs.
Beyond what we consider human emotions, dogs experience their own versions of mental illness, too, from OCD to PTSD. There are, of course, even pet psychiatrists to treat them, and while this niche industry has been slow on the telehealth uptake, some practitioners are providing visits outside the home to accommodate social distancing.
“When you think about what it’s like to be a dog, they don’t really know what’s expected of them in the human world,” Borns-Weil said. “They get a routine, and their ability to function in the human world depends on knowing what that routine is. It’s quite a huge change for dogs—and for cats—having their schedules disrupted.”
This stress can manifest in more subtle ways than a pediatric medical emergency: Borns-Weil is seeing “a whole range of behavioral issues” among the canine patients at her veterinary practice, from increased territorial barking to doggy depression.
“There are some dogs and cats that really need downtime,” she said. “Nobody’s really thinking about whether the dog—who’s used to just having this time to themselves for resting—is really in the mood to play with the ball, or go for a five-mile walk, or get petted, much less get jumped on by toddlers who are usually at daycare.”
She added that most dogs are not used to being “on call” 24/7, and this could lead to their becoming anxious, irritable, even depressed. On the flipside of the coin, she said there are just as many humans now struggling with their pets thinking their owners are ready to play all the time. “So,” she said, “what we get is a situation where both ends of the spectrum, the animals or the people are suffering from a lack of boundaries.”
Borns-Weil said that much of how dogs feel is expressed in their behavior. They are social animals, she said, so if humans pay attention, they’ll see dogs are actually quite good at expressing their emotions.
To mitigate the risk of dog bites—or to simply help boost a dog’s mental health and help them cope—she recommends finding ways to make sure a dog has access to periods of quiet and privacy, and a consistent schedule when it comes to quiet time versus walks versus play.
Ultimately, she said, as with our human partners, if it doesn’t strain relationships, this trying time may actually help take human-pup relationships to the next level.
“We are spending more time around them, we are becoming a lot more dependent on them, but we also have an opportunity to understand their worlds better.”