ABSTRACT: Decorating, refurnishing and building projects can be highly stressful for both humans and their pets! Pets thrive in a consistent and predictable social and physical environment; in the absence of this, many animals fail to cope with the changes and their welfare is depleted. Choice is important to maintaining welfare – if an individual can choose to remain in a stimulating and changing environment or choose to escape to a place of safety, their welfare needs are met. Yet few owners consider the potential welfare problems of pets living in homes that are undergoing changes. This article offers some suggestions to enhance the pets' capacity to cope when faced with the dilemma of such changes.

All companion animal species are living in an environment that is far more complex and varied than nature intended. By and large, most of them cope for most of the time – but there are limits.

Animals thrive in a predictable and consistent environment, so when unusual situations occur, they have a prepared response to deal with the situation. Because events tend to occur in the same order, the issue can be predicted and, if necessary, avoided. Thus, although events may elicit a stress response, the likelihood and duration of the stress (both positive and negative) can be managed.

Such predictability and consistency provides the animal with choices regarding its exposure to stressors – the pet can choose to stay in the environment or move elsewhere

However, if an environment becomes unpredictable, an animal loses control over its potential stressors and experiences the physiological manifestations of stress more frequently and for longer periods – often in situations or at times when it is impossible for the animal to choose to avoid the problem.

House renovations and building projects are stressful for owners – who have elected to undergo the experience and understand the process. For the household pets that are subjected to this unpredictable and prolonged period of change, the level of stress can be considerably multiplied.

The reception area is the part of the practice where clients find that staff have time to chat. News of proposed or on-going building, decorating or re-furnishing in the pet’s home is an ideal opportunity for nursing staff to become pro-active in giving advice that will reduce the stress levels in pets and owners alike.

Will owners appreciate the advice?

Owners don’t always see an immediate need of pre-emptive advice – after all, the owner is likely to have enough problems without being told they should be worrying about their pet’s opinion of their re-designed home. But what are the possible alternatives to ignoring potential stress in their pets?

Well, many pets will just quietly become increasingly withdrawn – cats may hide more, and dogs may also attempt to hide and appear less interested in their surroundings. In many ways it is these quiet responders to stress that are the biggest welfare problem, as many go unnoticed, or owners just accept this new behaviour. It is the less passive individuals that get noticed!

Cats of both sexes, neutered and entire, are extremely adept at expressing their distress over changes in their home environment through urine marking – and owing to the rather pungent nature of the message, this can become extremely distressing for owners. Although hard for the accustomed eye to miss, it can take some time for the smell of cat urine to become obvious amongst the novel smells of building materials, fresh paint, new floorings and furniture – by which time the marking site can be so soaked that the smell and staining will be difficult to remove.

Anxious dogs will also urine mark novel items entering the home, leading to similar, if less aromatically intense, results. For this reason alone, clients should be grateful for advice on how to avoid such expensive problems – even if they may not initially recognise the need for intervention.

Aggressive outbursts

Owners aren’t the only ones to develop a ‘short fuse’ during household changes. Increased levels of anxiety can severely lower a pet’s threshold for exhibiting distance creating behaviour, leading to an increase in aggression, particularly between co-existing household pets – a situation that will be further enhanced if relationships have been fragile prior to the changes.

Anxiety or fear-related aggression may also be expressed towards strangers working in the home, visitors coming to admire the changes, and children, whose handling techniques may already be barely tolerable to the pet.

Such aggressive incidents may not be restricted to the home environment. The relative increase in emotional arousal may severely lower the pet’s tolerance of social and environmental challenges outside the home; leading to simple challenges resulting in re¬directed aggression towards owners, or a reduced capacity to cope with other social encounters without engaging aggression as a distance creating skill.

Such behavioural changes can appear un¬associated with environmental challenges in the home, resulting in reports of un-triggered aggression.

Don’t leave me!

The anticipation of potential problems in changing environments may lead to altered relationships with owners. In particular, an increased need of support may lead to increased levels of attachment and other separation-related issues.

Pets quickly recognise that workmen are more likely to be present during the working week when owners are likely to be absent. If an owner is at home, he or she can open a door to release a stressed pet, but in their absence the pet may effectively be trapped in a crate, utility room or kitchen.

Anxiety caused by altered social mixes, smells and loud and novel noises, may lead to destructive (escape attempt) behaviour, house-soiling and vocalisation during owner absence; and possibly increased neediness of social attention when owners are at home – which if responded to may further emphasise the anxiety during owner absence – a vicious circle of increasing distress.

Where did it go?

Change can be particularly difficult for the elderly pet or those with sensory deficits. These pets are likely to be particularly reliant on environmental markers that enable them to orientate themselves towards places of safety, doors that lead to toileting areas, and so on.

Not only will these pets be more likely to experience anxiety, they may also develop attachment, aggression or toileting problems, and distressed owners may punish these confused pets – thereby further increasing their anxiety.

Stop that!

Coping strategies can be very individual to the specific pet. However, common strategies – for the behaviourally frustrated or anxious pet that is experiencing increased levels of stress – are repetitive or compulsive behaviours; particularly if there is an aged area of discomfort, such as injury, arthritic joints or skin irritation to attract attention. Such behaviours may be more likely if environmental conditions lead to the pet spending increased periods in hiding.

Once the coping strategy is established as enhancing the pet’s perception of emotional homeostasis, the behaviour it is far easier for a pet to deal with changes in its environment if the pet is outgoing, sociable and happy to investigate novelty begins to be expressed in a wider variety of environments and at lowered thresholds of stress. Inevitably, family members become increasingly aware of the behaviour and attempt to interrupt it, thereby predisposing these often emotionally needy pets to increase the use of the behaviour as a form of attention seeking.

o, what can owners do?

Timely advice regarding the use of pheromone products and anxiety reducing nutraceuticals can help to reduce problems – with pheromone products being used on new items (always test a small, unseen sample first) and to enhance the safe place that will enable the pet to escape the changes.

If soiling accidents occur, they should be soaked up and the area carefully cleaned with appropriate products or with a 20% solution of enzymatic washing powder followed, once dry, with a light mist of surgical spirit or inexpensive vodka! Any areas that have been sprayed with pheromone products, or cleaned, should be left for several hours before allowing the pet back into the environment.

Cat owners may wish to harvest their cat’s facial pheromones onto cotton gloves and use these to wipe over novel items that come into the house.

An obvious solution is to ensure that pets don’t have to be exposed to changes – sending pets to generous relatives who enjoy sharing pet care responsibilities can be helpful at such times; but only with pets that are more fearful of unfamiliar people and which will find a move to a different environment less stressful than staying.

But most families will need to carefully consider how they can minimise their pet’s exposure to the strangers working in the home, the inevitable novel smells, sights and sounds and the permanent alterations to the home.

An ideal solution is to ensure that each pet has an established safe den or hideaway – so thought should be put into establishing this space before changes are initiated (Figure 1). This may require good observational skills to identify where the pet likes to go when stressed, rather than trying to create a place that is simply convenient for the owner. Cat owners should carefully consider the use of copious boxes and enhancing access to a 3-D environment; although a sound-proofed room, away from the problem, and containing all of the cats essential resources – including hiding places and entertainment – would better suit a cat’s needs (Figure 2).

Figure 1: An old sofa can be converted to a den by adding rugs – giving dogs the choice to hide if they feel the need

Figure 2: The simplest of items can make a huge difference to a cat's capacity to cope

Prevention is better than cure

Needless to say, it is far easier for a pet to deal with changes in its environment if the pet is outgoing, sociable and happy to investigate novelty – so for those involved in advising puppy or kitten owners, prospective household changes are an ideal topic for emphasising the need for thorough socialisation, environmental referencing and confidence in investigating novelty.

Older pets can be pre-prepared for the sight, sound and smell of novel chemicals and machinery through gradual introductions paired with positive experiences, such as play and tasty treats.

We’re home!

No matter how well families prepare their pets for household changes, some level of anxiety is inevitable. The long-term effects of this can be dramatically reduced by encouraging plenty of frustration and stress- busting activity (both away from the problem area and, for more confident pets, in its vicinity) while renovation activities are occurring – think about imaginative puzzle feeding activities. But once builders and decorators have left the house and the family are home, owners should be particularly pro-active in encouraging fun activities around the altered areas of the home.


Any changes to a pet’s environment will inevitably initiate an increase in stress, but pre-empting coping problems and offering behavioural choices not only enhance pet welfare but considerably improve the future success of the ownenpet bond once the renovators have gone.


Claire Hargrave BSc MSc PGCE CCAB

Claire is a Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist and a Member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors who has worked in veterinary practice in numerous capacities for over 30 years.

Claire runs a specialist referral practice for companion animal behaviour cases and is located in South West Wales. www.petbehaviourwales.co.uk

To cite this article use either

DOI: 10.1111/j.2045-0648.2012.00144.x or Veterinary Nursing Journal Vol 27 pp 72-74



• Vol 27 • February 2012 • Veterinary Nursing Journal