Sheltering in place, working from home or attending school remotely for some people has meant more interaction with their pets than with humans over the last 12 months. As the pandemic is brought under control, workers and students could be returning to offices and classrooms in the coming months. But what does that mean for the pets who suddenly won’t have their people around all the time?
Animal behavior experts say now is the time to start preparing your pet for an eventual separation.
That’s because if your pet is going to have an adverse reaction to your being away for hours at a time, the sooner you address the problem the better for your pet, you and perhaps your home’s furnishings.
Any change in your pet’s routine has the potential to cause them some degree of anxiety or stress, according to trainer Don Hanson of Green Acres Kennel Shop in Bangor. That stress can be as minor as a dog’s gentle whining or a cat placing itself directly at your feet as you get ready to leave the house.
The trick is to get them used to your leaving and confident that you will return.
“Start taking short little trips out of the house without your pet,” Hanson said. “Just five minutes and then come in and celebrate with your pet and then try it again for six or seven minutes, slowly building up the time you are gone over several weeks or months if you can.”
Another strategy is placing your pet in a different room when you are working. That could mean shutting the door into your workspace, putting up a pet-safe gate between rooms or placing your pet in a crate.
“Transition your pet to get them back on your working outside the home schedule,” Dr. Christine Calder, a veterinary animal behaviorist based in southern Maine, said. “Remind them what their lives were like before the pandemic and everyone started staying at home.”
As you start leaving for these brief forays, or just spend time in a different room, your pet may bark or yowl or jump at the door. Ideally, after several minutes of this, they will give up and settle down to wait for your return.
But if your pet is unable to self sooth, or just gets bored alone, you may come home or enter a room and see destroyed blinds and curtains, chewed furniture, knocked over plants, ripped pillows and ruined personal possessions. They may have vomited or otherwise soiled your carpets, flooring or bedding.
To keep your pet from getting bored in your absence, Calder suggests giving it something to do. She said there are an array of safe and mentally stimulating pet puzzles, toys and treat dispensers you can buy for your pet.
“Try giving them something to do while you are working on the computer,” Calder said. “Use that time as mini trial separations.”
When it comes to dogs in particular, a tired dog tends to be a happier dog when left alone. So it can be a good idea to take your dog on a nice walk or jog before you leave. A game of fetch in the back yard will also allow the dog to release some pent up energy.
Cats enjoy knowing what is going on around them, so making sure they have a place where they can safely perch to watch out a window can be helpful. At the same time, it’s a good idea to make sure cats have their own nook or spot in your home that is their safe place to go.
When you get home, make time for fun. Play with your pets, give them a good brushing or do something you both enjoy as a way of spending quality time together,
If your pet starts to display extreme destructive and potentially harmful behavior while you are gone, it can be a sign of separation anxiety. For that you are going to need a veterinary animal behaviorist. These are medical professionals who are able to look at your pet’s behavior in relation to its health, environment and experiences. Veterinary animal behaviorists can also prescribe medications to treat separation anxiety.
“Separation anxiety is a true panic attack and is an emotional not a training issue,” according to Calder. “Lots of times these pets need medications that are specific to that animal.”
Diagnosing true separation anxiety can be tricky, Calder said. Symptoms like excessive vocalization and destructive behavior can present as separation anxiety, but actually be due to a physical issue like urinary tract infections or arthritic pain.
Hanson said knows there are pet owners who would probably resist giving their pets medication for something they see as a disobedient behavior.
“These medications really do help so your animal is not suffering,” he said. “It’s the only way to treat this sort of mental imbalance in a pet.”
Hanson and Calder are both concerned that if people do not take the time and effort to make sure pets are as ready as they can be for the day their people go back to work or school, it will end badly for those pets.
“I’ve talked to colleagues and have already heard of dogs getting dumped because their people have gone back to work,” Hanson said. “So suddenly you have shelters having to place a dog with existing behavioral issues.”