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Pet industry embraces opportunities as owners return to work


After remortgaging her house and borrowing from friends and family to keep her business alive through the pandemic, Carolyn Hatfield is happily struggling to keep up with demand from pet owners seeking daycare for their COVID puppies.

"We're booked out for assessments through to June," the owner of The Canine Social Company Ltd. said in an interview.

Like many in the pet industry whose businesses were upended by COVID, Hatfield's biggest challenge now is managing the heightened separation anxiety of workers and their pets as more people return to the office.

She carefully screens dogs to make sure they're a good fit for her doggie day care facility east of Toronto's Greektown. Whereas most dogs were approved in the years before COVID, as few as 40 per cent of applicants are currently accepted because their high stress would disrupt other four-legged customers.

"It's kind of (like) the phenomenon of kids going to kindergarten for the first time, and they're clutching the parent's leg," she said.

Nearly half of dogs she sees are exhibiting anxiety these days. Most are puppies that have never been separated from their owners, but even some older dogs are indicating that they'd rather be at home on the couch.

This animal anxiety comes after the pandemic upended the pet business. Retail stores were periodically forced to close during successive waves after being declared non-essential services while demand for dog walkers, daycare and boarding dried up as pet owners worked from home and stopped travelling.

Through it all, Canadians added pets to their families in record numbers. Pet fostering increased 70 per cent during the pandemic, while space-related euthanasia cases at shelters has been virtually eliminated for dogs and drastically reduced for cats.

COVID "really demonstrated how much Canadians love animals," said Barbara Cartwright, CEO of Humane Canada, whose members include Humane Societies and SPCAs across the country.

Fears that there would be a wave of pet surrenders as Canadians return to work has so far failed to materialize, she said.

Melanie Patterson, owner of Pamper the Pooch, is welcoming furry guests at home again as demand for her small dog boarding and cat visit business has surged after bookings vanished during the pandemic.

"I would say it's definitely back to where it was before COVID, if not a little bit better, because of the new clients that seem to be coming in," she said.

But caring for these dogs can be difficult because many are unused to being alone or to being around other dogs.

"I've had a dog here who's literally sat at a window for an entire day, just crying, waiting for their (owners) to come back for them."

Dogs aren't the only ones under stress. Patterson said she's had to help first-time pet owners who are worried about being separated from their puppy.

"I am doing a lot more communication, sending a lot more pictures, videos, text, any sort of form of communication that my clients want just to reassure them that their dogs are doing OK."

Pandemic puppies pose an extra problem because many are not well-socialized and can be nippy with walkers and bark or bite out of frustration, said Nicola Smith, owner of dog walking service We Wag Toronto.

Anxious pet owners are increasingly turning to technology or distractions to keep their animals occupied or monitor their behaviour while they're left home alone. They are buying remote cameras with treat dispensers, two-way cameras with microphones and apps that allow videocalls home.

Use of CBD oil to calm dogs is on the increase as well.

Anxiety in animals can manifest in constant barking and pacing, urination and defecation, and in extreme cases destructive behaviour. There can also be tremendous stress on owners if they live in a multi-tenant building, with threats of eviction as well as guilt about the animal's unhappiness, said Andre Yeu, founder and head trainer of When Hounds Fly, a dog training service in Toronto and Vancouver.

Treatment can help but it can take weeks or months of gradually increasing separations before the dog is confident with being left alone.

Animal behavioural specialist Dr. Colleen Wilson says videotaping a dog can help identify if it is suffering from separation anxiety or some other problem. Telemedicine can also be useful to assess animal behaviour because separation anxiety is frequently misdiagnosed.

"It's great because the true sense of the animal is when there's no stranger in your house or you're not bringing your dog to a veterinary clinic," she said.

Wilson said studies have shown that pets are often stressed because the owners are stressed. So being calm will model the appropriate behaviour in pets. And adopting independence training that takes a slow approach to getting an animal used to being alone will avoid problems, she said.

Some Canadian companies have opened their doors to employees' dogs. Vancouver-based tech company HootSuite, which has welcomed pets for years at some of its global offices, said the practice helps to relieve stress for animals and employees alike.

It's also a great benefit to attract and retain employees amid a tight labour market, said Carol Waldman, director of global facilities and real estate.

"Anything we can add to make it a better employee experience and kind of encourage mental health and wellness and happiness in the workplace, I think we're really striving to continue to develop in those areas," she said.

The company is also piloting a free dog walking service for one hour per week.

Carolina Heyman, manager of Tier 2 technical support, says her mini goldendoodle Nessie, acquired during the pandemic while Hootsuite's offices were closed, loves to go to the office. And Heyman said it relieves her own stress by not being required to leave her dog at home.

"I'd probably work from home more often because it's important to me to not leave her alone all day."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 17, 2022. Top Stories

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