Decompression for Pets

Jan 9, 2020   Tracey Aston   Behavior

Think of the last time you had a major life change, maybe it was changing jobs, graduating college, or moving to a new home. While those changes were exciting, they also came with their own share of stresses. Now imagine trying to do those things with a family or group of people you just met and barely know. This is how rescue animals feel. It's an exciting time, a new journey but they don't yet know you. In addition, some of these pets may have come from abusive or neglectful situations and are still working through the issues of the past. This is your home and you want to share it with them, but it's not yet theirs. Not yet. 

When bringing a new pet home, whether through rescue or a breeder, your new family member is going to need some down to decompress. Bringing home a new family member is exciting, and our instincts as humans is to hug, kiss, give new toys, and meet all the family members. For a pet in a new situation, these situations equate to overstimulation of an already unsure pet. You may be the world's best pet parent, but your pet doesn't know that yet. Your pet doesn't even know YOU yet.  Hopefully, you and your new family member will have years to make memories, but right now what they need from you is time.

The amount of time a pet needs to decompress varies from pet to pet. During this time, have a safe, calm place your new family member can relax and won't be bothered by children or other pets.  If you are crate training your pet, move the crate away from all the action to a quiet, comfy place.  Allow the pet to come and go at their confidence level and always make sure they can retreat if they need. Don't give your new pet too much space at first, it will become overwhelmed. Your home is strange place to your new pet, and they won't know which areas are forbidden or encouraged, so block off all entrances to areas your pet isn't allowed and encourage, praise and reward when they are in permitted areas. Remember to be consistent in these early days as our pets thrive on routines and a pet will be less anxious when they know what is expected of them.  

During this time of decompression, give gentle guidance with a calm speaking voice. While overstimulation can be a detriment, a nice leisurely walk together can help the bonding process and relive some nervous energy. Remember to be patient with your new pet and encourage good behavior. Even pets that are house trained can have accidents due to anxiety, stress, training lapses or not knowing where to go or how to signal their needs.  In the beginning, try to use the same door or command when housetraining your pet, so they can know what is expected of them.  Always encourage, praise and reward when a pet has gone outside, on their papers or in their litter box. 

If your new pet is crying through the night, and this is typical of young puppies and kittens, or is showing signs of fear, comfort them with a calm, soft voice and gentle pets.  Try not to get upset with the pet as this can reinforce their sense there is something to be feared. 

After your pet has started to decompress some, slowly introduce new family members, other pets and family friends. While it's true all pets need socialized, rushing an anxious pet into social situations before they are ready could have negative effects.  This doesn't mean to keep your new pet locked away from pets already in the home. They need a safe space where they feel secure but can still get used to the comings and goings of the family and an already established pet. The new pet and established pet will sense and smell each other and keeping them locked apart could cause a negative association between pets and could lead to anxious or competitive jealousy. An established pet will need time to decompress as well and both the safety of all, any pet interactions should be watched closely and done slowly.  

Children should be taught to respect the new pet and to give them space during the decompression stage. Explain to them in terms they can understand what the new pet is going through and that the pet will be ready to play when they feel more assured of their surroundings.  

Giving a pet a forever home is admirable, but giving them time to decompress is essential in building a solid foundation that will reap benefits for years to come. 

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