Vet Spotlight: Decompression Tips From Dr. Toni

By Antionette I Knox, DVM

“Big or small, young or old – there’s one thing that most dogs need in their forever home, which is the key to a successful transition: TIME! Your new pet, or soon-to-be pet, has just come home. This is a very exciting time in a pet owner’s life, especially if you are a first-time pet owner. While you may want to bond with your furry pal right away, it’s important to remember that your pet is an individual whose experience and reactions are nuanced.

When a pet is adopted from a shelter, it may be difficult to know their full background and what their previous life consisted of. What we do know is that your home is a brand-new environment for them, filled with objects and sounds they may have never seen or heard before. Some expectations of your pet will be to bond with the family, learn behavioral skills, and adapt to any previously established routines in the home – all while they are still unsure, confused, or even scared. This is why it is recommended that any pet adopted from a shelter is given what we call a “decompression period”. The length of a decompression period varies per individual pet, ranging from a 1-2 week period to several months.

Here are some tips for allowing a smooth decompression period for your new rescue:

  1. Give your pet their own safe space. This can be in the form of a well bedded crate in a quiet area of the home. Provide positive enrichment in this space so that the pet learns to associate it with things they like and things that will bring comfort. Some examples include high value treats like Kong toys stuffed with peanut butter, nice bedding, a nice sized crate, catnip with a scratching post, or a window perch or a cat tower in a quiet area of the home.
  2. Establish and maintain a routine schedule. Using treats will help in this endeavor to help train desirable behavior. Your new pet will not know what is expected of them without teaching and training. This is achieved through patience, positive reinforcement, and consistency (aka ROUTINE!). Using treats will help grab their attention and will make them want to work for the treat but also, they will learn to associate a desired behavior with a reward when it is done correctly. Never punish an animal for undesired behaviors. They often won’t know what they did wrong and it is a sure way to lead to a breakdown of trust and unwanted behaviors in the future.
  3. SLOW introductions are a must to outside family members as well as other animals in the home. Allow your new pet time to get acquainted with the immediate family first before allowing people to meet in the home. Your new pet should be allowed to explore the home environment before introducing resident pets in the home. Introductions should be slow and occur in multiple small sessions over time. Make sure the experience is positive at every session and do not force any interactions.
  4. Ask for help! Never hesitate to reach back out to shelter for advice or guidance when you notice concerning behaviors. They will often have resources or recommendations that may be helpful.

Following these simple steps can help with a successful transition into a new home. A two-week shutdown period is typically recommended but some animals may need more time. Pay attention to the clues your pet is giving you. If they still appear nervous or skittish, wait a little bit longer before introducing them to other experiences. Patience and awareness are imperative during this critical time of transitioning for any pet in a new home but ultimately the incredible human-animal bond that is established makes it all worth it in the end!”

Dr. Antionette I Knox is a Staff Veterinarian at Providence Animal Center. Learn more about her today.