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Barking, Screeching, Whining, Hissing: Pets Exhibit Behavioral Issues With Humans Home In Pandemic06:37
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A lot of us have been home for the last eight months — just about every day, all day. Sleeping, eating, learning and working at home.

Maeby, a yellow lab mix belonging to WBUR's Ally Jarmanning, contentedly lies next to Ally while she works. (Courtesy Ally Jarmanning)
Maeby, a yellow lab mix belonging to WBUR's Ally Jarmanning, contentedly lies next to Ally while she works. (Courtesy Ally Jarmanning)

If you've got a lovable furry creature or creatures at home, having you around so much might be something close to heaven for them.

It is for Maeby, the yellow lab mix of WBUR's Ally Jarmanning, who happily thump-thump-thumps her tail on the hardwood floor as she lies in her favorite spot next to Ally's desk and Ally talks to her while working.

But for many pets, adjusting to our new lifestyles — and stress levels — brings on behaviors and sounds that fall into the growl and screech category.

We did an informal poll of our animal-loving colleagues to find out what changes they're seeing in their pets.

Fifteen-year-old Frankie, the tuxedo cat belonging to WBUR's Leah Davis, appears both angry and clingy in recent months, Leah says. She follows Leah around, but growls and hisses something fierce. That might be partly because two new kittens entered the home during the pandemic.

Leah's 33-year-old umbrella cockatoo, Izzy, is also demonstrating behavior changes. The bird not only screeches a lot more than normal and doesn't quiet down like she typically would after being left alone, she also makes repetitive Yoda-esque talking sounds (hit the audio icon next to the headline above to hear them for yourself!) when she sees Leah is in a Zoom meeting or busy doing something else.

Izzy is screeching more than normal and talks loudly when her owner, Leah Davis, is on Zoom meetings or otherwise not paying attention to her. (Courtesy Leah Davis)
Izzy is screeching more than normal and talks loudly when her owner, Leah Davis, is on Zoom meetings or otherwise not paying attention to her. (Courtesy Leah Davis)

Meanwhile, 5-year-old lab-hound mix Ebony, the pup of WBUR's Lynn Jolicoeur, has been barking and whining more than normal the last couple of months — seemingly seeking extra attention from her humans since they are home more than normal.

Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil has seen — and heard — it all from people's pets. She's a veterinary behaviorist and clinical assistant professor at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton. Dr. Borns-Weil told WBUR's All Things Considered host Lisa Mullins she's been "swamped" with pets exhibiting less-than-perfect behaviors in these pandemic times.

Interview Highlights

On what she's seeing in people's pets: 

"The new problem that I'm seeing more than anything else is barking, even people whose pets have a whole bunch of other problems. The main concern now is barking because it's getting in the way of people being able to do their work... Partly, they're not barking more. People are just with their barking dogs more. One common reason why dogs bark is territorial. They hear people come to the door, there's delivery trucks, things like that. There are a whole lot more delivery trucks [now]."

Ebony, a lab-hound mix belonging to WBUR's Lynn Jolicoeur, has been barking more the last couple of months, seemingly seeking more attention from her humans since they're home so much. (Courtesy Lynn Jolicoeur)
Ebony, a lab-hound mix belonging to WBUR's Lynn Jolicoeur, has been barking more the last couple of months, seemingly seeking more attention from her humans since they're home so much. (Courtesy Lynn Jolicoeur)

On what to do about dogs' barking and attention-seeking behaviors:

"First of all, you want to find out, is it a learned behavior ... are they doing it because when they bark at you, you stop and you pet them or you give them a treat to get them to be quiet? Or is it because they're actually needy and lonely or need something? Or is it territorial barking? If they're barking a lot out the window, it can help to just close the door to the front room so they're not looking out the window.

"You also want to give them something to do. So, a food puzzle toy, something nice to chew, and make sure they've had plenty of exercise — especially if they're missing out on their usual time at a dog park or at a day care. Then, you want to ignore the unwanted behavior. But ignoring can be really hard because if you're in the middle of a meeting, you can't just say I have to let my dog bark until he stops. So that's why you really want to make sure that you get your dog set up with something really enjoyable to do while you're on your meeting."

On cats during the pandemic:

"With cats, too, it's very similar. You can strike a compromise with your cat. If your cat wants to be close to you, you can put a nice comfy place right next to the computer and then reinforce them with some treats for laying down in the place where you want them to lay and not in the place where you don't want them to lay — which is right on your keyboard with their rear end up against the screen camera. But again, you also have to exercise your cat, make sure that your cat has plenty of playtime. Some cats enjoy puzzle toys. So for young cats, you can set them up with the puzzle toy or throw out some birdseed in front of their window seat and they can watch all the birds come — what I think of as cat theater."

Frankie, a 15-year-old tuxedo cat belonging to WBUR's Leah Davis, has been growling and hissing a lot but is also clingy. (Courtesy Leah Davis)
Frankie, a 15-year-old tuxedo cat belonging to WBUR's Leah Davis, has been growling and hissing a lot but is also clingy. (Courtesy Leah Davis)

On being consistent with your pets:

"I think a critical piece is making sure that you're consistent with the pets, because if you're going to pet the dog sometimes when they interrupt in a meeting and bark and not other times, they're getting a mixed message. And same with the cat. If it's OK and cute to lay on the keyboard sometimes, but not other times, they really don't know what to expect from us... Predictability is everything for them. And when we change all the rules, like with COVID, it can make them very uneasy and very confused."

On pets acquired in the pandemic and whether she's seeing a lot of rescuers' or buyers' regret:

"This is one of the problems that isn't quite a problem yet, that's going to be a problem when people go back into the world — dogs and cats that have never spent more than five minutes alone. What's going to happen when their people suddenly go back to work full time? ... Since the beginning of the pandemic, I've been telling people be sure to go out for a walk without your dog. Be sure to take time away from your cat. ... A dog that spends no time alone is at high risk for developing separation anxiety later. ... They need to develop that independence and stand on their own four feet.

"I would anticipate what I'm going to see next is a spike of problems when dogs that were insufficiently socialized during the pandemic are going out in the world and reaching social maturity. On the other hand, I anticipate seeing some really good stuff, too. There's nothing like spending a lot of time with an animal to really get an understanding of what their life is like on a daily basis, what the rhythm of their days are like. ... It's a rare opportunity to get to see what our pets do 24 hours a day and what choices they make. Another good thing is I think we're going to come out of this with all of us having a much deeper understanding of the importance of social connection and mental stimulation for our pets."

This segment aired on November 18, 2020.

Related:

Lisa Mullins Twitter Host, All Things Considered
Lisa Mullins is the voice of WBUR’s All Things Considered. She anchors the program, conducts interviews and reports from the field.

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Lynn Jolicoeur Twitter Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.

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