Camille King

In April of this year, my sister died during the COVID-19 pandemic. The four of us sisters had a pact, and typically we coffee klatsched by conference call on weekend mornings from different parts of the country. We would belly laugh at the zaniest things – remembering when my oldest sister threw a chicken bone in my milk when I was in third grade, and my other sisters laughed so hard when they saw me fishing the bone out from my glass that my middle sister fell off her chair! Then of course we all laughed again at her scrambling back to her chair from the floor. That happened years ago, and we still laughed about it when one of us referred to the incident again. During a morning visit in April this year, we had our usual rollicking time. We were charmed looking at pictures of my sister’s granddaughter sitting in a crock pot at six months of age with a wide smile on her face. The sisters were energized about what experiments we were going to try with new plants in our gardens and what seeds we would be starting indoors during the winter months. Then we made another pot of coffee and talked and laughed some more. We had sister connectedness through and through. And then later that day, one of us was on a ventilator. And shortly afterward, she was pronounced dead. In one cherished moment she colored my life, and then she was taken away without even time enough to think about it.  In our culture, we don’t think about death when someone is in peak health, as she was. Unexpected death doesn’t even simmer on the front burner of our mind.

This article came to fruition because of this tragedy in my family.

The unexpected death of my sister created a storm. An entire book can be written about the topic of COVID-19 and grief and loss, but my experience prompted me to write about preparing for unexpected grief with a focus on dogs. What were we to do with all of my sister’s animals? That question continued to surface during the whole time we were in shock, and in denial, and angry, and depressed…all the while as we cried through the steps of grief.

None of us is safe from sudden tragedy, whether it be from COVID-19 or another traumatic event. This chaotic year brought us an unprecedented virus. As an applied animal behaviorist and a nurse, I have first-hand experience with the disruption that COVID-19 catapulted at us in my professional life as well as through my family’s tragedy. It has brought home in stark terms the need that all of us have to be prepared for sudden, unexpected events in our lives.

Are you prepared? What if this happened to you?

Do you wonder about what would happen to your pet dog if an emergency should happen to you? What if you ended up in a hospital for two months in respiratory distress due to COVID-19? Two months is a long time for a person to be apart from their dog – a dog with whom they share a bonded relationship. It is hard to think about, but what if you died? Many of us have families and assume that our dog could stay in the home with the rest of the family. But many others who own dogs do not have family members, close or extended, who could step in during a time of need to adopt that once-owned, now-orphaned pet dog. This is one of the realities that comes with COVID-19.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 202,000 people in the United States at the time of this writing.  In 2019, the American Pet Products Association (APPA) reported that more than 68% of U.S. households owned at least one dog. Approximately 3.3 million dogs are relinquished to U.S. shelters each year (ASPCA). Dog relinquishments have increased with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, causing strains on the shelter system regarding inadequate staffing and food resources, and other financial burdens.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused disruption in so many areas of our lives and our dogs’ lives.  Jaak Panksepp, in his book Affective Neuroscience, defines animals as having emotions of seeking, rage, fear, and panic.1
The renowned Temple Grandin, in her book Animals Make Us Human, claimed that people and animals are born with these emotions and that dogs can feel the core emotions.2 Can a dog experience grief as a human would? Much more research is needed to answer that question, but as behavior consultants, trainers, and even pet owners, we perceive animals in distress frequently.

When a pet owner is isolating in a room at home after receiving a positive test result, hospitalized with a diagnosis of COVID-19, or has passed away from the virus, the pet dog is going to experience the stress of loss of that person. Other family members in the home can provide comfort for the dog at some level, but they will be needing comfort themselves. This, in turn, will affect the amount of connection time the dog receives on a daily basis, and believe me, the dog will notice the loss. If the dog had problem behaviors prior to the loss, these behaviors can worsen when the person is not in the home, whether from sickness or death.

Other losses may surface for the dog during governmental mandates of social distancing and workplace closures. The social distancing will affect those dogs who attend play sessions, since people aren’t allowed to congregate in large groups, or it may hinder opportunities to play with a best “dog buddy,” because people are cautious about leaving their homes during the pandemic. Closures of dog day cares will reduce routine social exposure for many dogs.

Another disruption that the virus brought upon us is that many pet owners have lost their jobs and are financially impaired. Some pet owners have been unable to pay rent or purchase food, and dogs have been relinquished to shelters accordingly. This relinquishment, unforeseen by anyone a few months ago, causes a significant fracture in the human-animal bond. The stress of losing a pet due to financial problems from the COVID pandemic and the stress the pet endures in an uncertain future can be unbearable for both parties.

When people lose a human loved one from COVID-19, there are many avenues to gain support. Phone calls to family and friends in times of need, virtual funerals and memorials held in the person’s honor, and photos/letters shared to define the memory of the person can be helpful during a time of grief, but these are clearly not understandable to the dog that is also undergoing the loss. These historical social traditions are very familiar to people, but don’t exist for dogs. The dog’s connection is often to the one true person in that dog’s life, even though the dog may have relationships with multiple people. The pet dog will notice a change in routine, whether their human is isolating in one room, away at the hospital gone permanently. Grief is very real and can shadow individuals for a long time, darkening that shadow at times when least expected.

What to do if you get caught in an emergency

To avoid relinquishing a pet dog to a shelter there are steps you can take.

First of all, stay healthy. Follow the CDC guidelines for social distancing, wear a mask in public areas, and perform hand hygiene often. Being healthy allows you to provide for your pet.

For those individuals who have lost their jobs and steady income:

  • Stay positive and take small steps to move forward.
  • Assess to see if there are any family members who can help on a temporary basis, whether it be by helping you financially or fostering your dog.
  • Seek a local pet food bank to assist with obtaining food for your pet.
  • Consult with your veterinarian and veterinary pharmaceutical companies for medication samples

Have a safety plan for unpredictable emergencies:

  • Add your pet to your legal will or develop a pet guardian trust. (Note: Decisions and commitments involving the parties who will care for your dog, should you be hospitalized or become incapacitated, must be settled before a crisis situation.)
  • Keep a list of resources readily available so any person can step in at a moment’s notice and care for your pet:
    • Your veterinarian’s phone number
  • Local pet walker/pet sitter’s phone number (whom your dog has met and/or has a relationship with)
    • Local humane society/animal control officer phone numbers
  • Keep a three-week supply of any of the dog’s medication available for emergencies.

Training plan:

  • Train the dog to be comfortable in a crate, so containment is an option for the dog if they are housed elsewhere or with a less familiar person. (If someone isn’t as familiar with the dog, being able to put them in a crate while at work or on errands, for example, can give them greater flexibility to continue caring for the dog.)
  • Train the dog to have a solid response to obedience cues (recall, down-stay, eye contact, leave-it, and heel on leash). A dog’s cue compliance will make it easier for a substitute person to fill in and start caring for the dog.

Ongoing training plan:

  • Hire an applied animal behaviorist or professional dog trainer to work on problem behaviors, so the issue will be resolved or appropriately managed with a behavior modification program before an emergency surfaces.

Anticipate that your dog may experience separation stress once the COVID-19 mandates of safer-at-home are lifted. If your dog already has separation anxiety, get help from a professional. A pet dog will love having you home 24/7 during the pandemic stay-at-home orders. Subsequently, the dog will feel the pinch once you return to work or to your normal routine. A behavior professional can assist with evaluating separation anxiety and develop a plan of desensitization/counter-conditioning for your dog. A veterinarian may also evaluate the need for medication.

While you are at home, attempt to maintain a routine as much as possible. If the dog is crated while you are at work, provide short periods of daily crate time during the pandemic to maintain your dog’s routine. Offer structure for your dog. This could be a tactile massage period to soothe your pet prior to crating, mental stimulation, or a short training session. Build your relationship through training as your dog is homeschooled. Work on any obedience cues that your dog needs to perfect. Balance your activities so the dog has owner-engaged time and self-soothing time.

While you are on stay-at-home orders, take the opportunity to walk your dog to different areas in the neighborhood, especially if your dog is typically crated while you are at work.  This will provide an emotional outlet and mental stimulation. Kids who are home from school and dogs with pent up energy can get over-stimulated. Call dogs out of rough play and set them up for success by organizing supervised child/dog activities together. Take the time to teach healthy play for dogs and children.

With the upcoming flu season, and the possibility of another surge of the pandemic later this year, clear a path in your life so a storm doesn’t disrupt it. Be prepared. Maintain the best preventive care to keep yourself healthy and make sure your pet is cared for too.

In reviewing my family’s tragedy, my sister’s pets were well cared for and have stayed with relatives. We are all “animal people” so this was an easy decision. We are thankful that her pets have been welcomed into a living situation with family members with whom they were already familiar. All the family had met each of the pets prior. The bonds remain stable and all of them are doing well. Should something happen during COVID-19 to one of the current relatives who embraced these family pets, we would all once again come together to make sure they were all cared for and loved.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Eileen Anderson for her thoughtful comments on this paper.

References

  1. Panskepp, J. (1998). Affective neuroscience. Oxford University Press.
  2. Grandin, T., & Johnson, C. (2009). Animals make us human. Houghton, Mifflin, & Harcourt Publishing.

Camille King, EdD, RN, ACAAB, CDBC, is an applied animal behaviorist who owns Canine Education Center, LLC in Colorado. She specializes in assessment and treatment of dogs with severe aggression and anxiety disorders. Camille conducts professional research on canine stress and mental health issues. When she isn’t working with dogs, she works as an advanced practice psychiatric clinical nurse specialist.