Has Covid-19 caused behavioural changes in domestic dogs?

01 Mar 2022

By Dr. Hazel Rooney

Take home message: The results of this questionnaire have demonstrated that there have been significant behavioural changes in domestic dogs because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The behavioural changes reported are primarily associated with dogs seeking more attention. If owners begin to spend more time away from home again, as life returns to normal after the pandemic, those dogs who have become accustomed to being with their owners constantly may find it difficult to adjust back to being left alone.

Introduction: The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) annual PDSA Animal Wellbeing (PAW) report of 2020 states that there are approximately 10.1 million domestic dogs in the UK, which is the highest number recorded since the PAW report started in 2011. The 2020 PAW report asked 1,789 dog owners for responses to a post-lockdown survey in August 2020, to see how owners perceive their dogs and investigate any outcomes from COVID-19. This PAW report found that the number of dogs left alone for more than 5 hours had fallen to just 11% and 20% of dog owners had seen a new behaviour exhibited from their dog since the lockdown period started, with 5% of dogs showing distress when being left alone. A study by Holland et al., (2021) describes how dog owners were concerned about their dog’s lack of alone time during the pandemic, but equally didn’t provide the dog opportunities to be alone. Another area of concern raised was the dog’s lack of socialisation with other dogs, as well as a rise in unwanted behaviours which included seeking more attention, more vocalisation, and issues with being left alone. A rise in vocalisation from dogs was seen by 82% of owners and an increase of 61% of dogs seeking attention compared to before COVID-19 (Dogs Trust, 2020). Unfortunately, it was hypothesised that there would be behavioural changes due to the lockdown measures which may lead to rehoming of the animals, therefore a rise in dog ownership may result in a rise in dog relinquishment as a direct response to the dog’s unwanted behaviour. Indeed, Dogs Trust anticipate up to 40,000 dogs could be relinquished because of COVID-19 (Dogs Trust, 2020). The aim of the present study was to explore owner perception of the behaviour impact of Covid-19 lockdown on domestic dogs, by releasing a survey to pet owners on canine behaviours observed pre and post COVID-19.

Experimental design: As previously mentioned, there are an estimated 10.1 million dogs in the UK so a response to the survey of 384 participants would make it representative of the dog population in the UK. A questionnaire was presented online via social media platform Facebook and targeted members of the public from various regions across the UK through dog focused groups, investigating dog behaviour in relation to COVID-19. Groups that the questionnaire was shared to included groups such as Black Labradors UK, Dog Chat UK, East Anglian Labradors UK, and Cornwall Loves Dogs. The survey was provided through Google Forms, and it was asked that people completing it were over 18 years of age and owned a dog(s).

Materials and Methods: The questionnaire was released to the public between February 17th and 19th 2021 and closed after receiving 1200 responses. The questionnaire was designed with five background questions about the owner (three multiple choice and two check boxes) and four background questions about the dog (three multiple choice and one short answer). The questionnaire then went on to ask eight questions abought COVID-19 and the dog, including routine changes (two multiple choice, four check boxes, two long answer). Finally, there were seven questions using the Likert scale asking the owner to indicate specific behavioural changes seen in their dog with two additional short answer questions asking for more detail.  Varied question style was utilised to enable focus on what was required from respondents to collate comprehensive data. Microsoft Excel and Minitab v19 statistical package were used to analyse the data. Bar charts were made in Excel and Minitab was used for Chi-squared tests for association, Tally for discrete variables and Outlier tests.

Results: The results of the questionnaire found that 24.4% of dogs were alone less, 13.4% of dogs had more walks and 8.6% had minor routine changes. Overall, 82% of dogs had some sort of routine change since the start of COVID-19. Most respondents said that 31.1% of dogs have never been left for more than four hours. Of the 68.8% that had at some point in time been left for more than four hours, 49.2% had left their dog before COVID-19 and only 4.8% had since. Similarly, the number of dogs attending training classes and/or activities such as doggy day-care decreased significantly. In terms of behavioural changes, 45.6% of owners perceived their dog’s behaviour had changed in some way. The most common behavioural changes perceived by owners since COVID-19 were dogs seeking more attention and being anxious when left and dogs being more vocal, reactive, anxious, and aggressive. It’s also interesting to note that respondents indicated that they observed an increase in their dogs choosing to spend time with them, increased engagement and playfulness, and a decrease in aggression since the COVID-19 pandemic. When considering application to industry, it would be beneficial to provide more information and support for the public surrounding managing their pets during time of routine change to prevent unwanted behaviours occurring in dogs.

This study was carried out by, Elizabeth Crosley, while studying her for BSc Applied Animal Health programme at Duchy College, Stoke Climsland. Elizabeth would like to thank her two academic supervisors, Lisa Pinno and Sarah May, for their support throughout her studies. I wish Elizabeth the very best of luck with her studies and know that she has a very bright future ahead.

Dr. Hazel Rooney, Pig Technical Co-Ordinator, Alltech Ireland

Hazel has been a member of the BSAS Early Career Council since 2020. She works to help pig producers, feed mills and vets to improve the health, welfare, and productivity of pigs in the Irish and European marketplaces.