Ever since a majority of Americans went into quarantine to prevent the spread of coronavirus in mid-March, pets have become acclimated to the uninterrupted presence of their humans. Shelter animals were adopted or fostered in record numbers by those seeking companionship in isolation.
But with states slowly lifting COVID-19 restrictions, people are starting to return to work, leaving their furry friends home alone. This tough transition could create separation anxiety issues in both new additions and long-term family pets.
Separation anxiety is a mental state your companion animal experiences when you are away from them. It is among the most common behavior problems experienced by dogs. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 20 to 40 percent of dogs are diagnosed with separation anxiety under normal circumstances. Experts predict that millions of dogs could experience severe separation anxiety in the post-quarantine world. Pet cats, too, are prone to separation anxiety when left in solitude for long periods of time.
We’ve put together a helpful guide for pet parents to ease stress and anxiety in pets during the transition and after the end of quarantine.
Will Pets Experience Separation Anxiety After COVID-19?
Dr. Becky Krull of Green Bay and Allouez Animal Hospitals, Inc. in Wisconsin says she anticipates some pets suffering from varying levels of separation anxiety once their owners return to work. “I am already seeing issues in some of my patients, such as increased barking, not wanting to go in their kennel, pacing, decreased appetite, and potty training issues.”
There is also a possibility of separation anxiety in dogs who’ve previously suffered from it and were treated in the past. Another group that could be affected include newly adopted animals. “Behavior issues for pets that are adopted during this stay-at-home time could possibly worsen when people go back to work because it is all the current pet knows,” says Krull.
“We do need to remember that companion animals are just that—companions. In general, our pets want to be with us,” she adds. “If they don’t know a world without us, it can be very scary. Put yourself in their shoes. We are their world. Their source of food, water, exercise, elimination, and connection. When we walk out the door, so do all the things they depend on us for.”
Lauren Jay, dog trainer and owner of Paw & Order: Canine Intent in New York, agrees. “If your pet currently follows you around like glue, it’s going to be worse when you leave the house, as they are left wondering what to do since they have become dependent on your every move.”
When left alone, your nervous pet may exhibit signs of separation anxiety including, but not limited to:
- Excessive barking
- Obsessive grooming
Extreme cases of separation anxiety could result in loss of appetite and destructive behavior if panic levels are too high. Pets who are confined to crates or rooms may attempt to escape, resulting in broken teeth, damaged paws and nails and scratched up doors.
How to Help Ease the Transition for Pets
While going back to work following COVID-19 quarantines may cause disruptions and discomfort for pets, there are plenty of things that pet parents can do to make things easier. Put these measures in place to help:
Stick to a Routine
Jay emphasizes the importance of having a routine for pets, especially puppies and recently adopted pets. “We need to teach dogs how to be alone, so that when we do start to return to work they aren’t left stressed and panicked all day until we return.”
Cats also tend to form strong bonds with their humans. When separated, they express their stress by becoming vocal, overgrooming or relieving themselves on furniture or clothes. Before you return to work, you can alleviate future cat separation anxiety by sticking to a routine.
Think about what your day will be like when you go back to work and create structure for your pet’s using that schedule. Feeding times, play times, and walks should happen at the same time every day, and should be something you can stick to once you return to working outside your home.
Give Your Pets Some Alone Time
As wonderful as it is to take refreshing walks with our four-legged friends, one of the best things a pet parent can do is give them some space. Leaving them alone for short periods of time encourages pets to expect absences and adjust to the new reality.
Go for walks without your dogs and run essential errands with your family. When leaving newly rescued pets at home, take it slow. Depart only for short periods of time, from five to ten minutes, and increase it over a few weeks. If your dog scratches at the door, come back sooner, but only enter once he’s quiet, so he knows he’ll be rewarded with your presence when calm.
Get Your Pet Plenty of Exercise
For high energy pets, add a mentally stimulating play session or a long walk before leaving them alone, preferably around the same time you’d be leaving for work. “Exercising your pet mentally and physically before leaving them alone will help ease an anxious pet,” explains Jay.
Use Crates Regularly
Just because you’re home more doesn’t mean your pet’s crate should sit empty. “If your dog was regularly crated, make sure you are still using the crate in a positive way,” says Krull.
When leaving your dog in a crate, reintroduce them to the crate with positive reinforcement and treats (if they are food motivated). Leave them in the crate when venturing outside and reward good behavior upon returning.
Crates may not be the best option for dogs with severe separation anxiety and you should contact a behaviorist or trainer if your dog is showing any kind of destructive or concerning behavior when crated.
What to Do Upon Returning to Work
Once you have succeeded in getting your pets used to brief absences during quarantine, the next step is to see how they react to prolonged absences. Here are some useful ways to continue the training and monitor their behavior when you return to work.
Downplay Arrivals and Departures
When it’s time to finally leave the house for the day, don’t emphasize exits or entrances. “Long hellos and goodbyes are often what contribute to your pet’s anxiety when you are gone,” says Jay. Use a happy, light-hearted tone, and leave a treat to keep the pet’s spirits up before closing the door.
Leave Tasty Treats
Before stepping out, hide a treat toy stuffed with peanut butter, canned pumpkin or yogurt (but still within reach), so the pup is too busy trying to find his reward rather than worried about your departure. This will also help prevent your pooch (or a teething puppy) from destructive behavior.
Create a Calm Environment
Keep outside distractions to a minimum by closing windows and curtains. Play soothing music in the background (keep in mind not to set the volume too high, as it could add to your pet’s stress). The whirring sound of a running fan also distracts your pet from any triggering outside noises.
Leave Your Scent Around the House
To help your pets feel at ease, even when you’re away, leave clothes that smell like you within reach of your dog or cat. The scent of their favorite human can make them feel calmer.
Monitor Your Pet on Camera
It may feel like you are spying on your pets, but installing a video camera in the room in which they spend most of their time helps you monitor their behavior and observe if the measures you’ve taken to curb anxiety are working. If boredom is a factor, consider a camera that can also dispense treats.
Make Brief Visits or Stay Home a Few Days
If you are lucky enough to work close to home or have willing relatives, it could do your pet good to see people during the day. If your job allows you to work from home a couple of days per week, take advantage of it by alternating days spent at home, giving your pet more time to adjust.
Hire a Dog Walker or Cat Companion
If you are gone for more than four or five hours, get a dog walker to visit mid-day so that your dog gets fresh air and exercise. It also offers dog walkers, who’ve been without income for months, a chance to make some money. Start the dog walker even before returning to work to begin the adjustment process and lessen your pet’s dependence on you. For cats, have someone visit for a socialization/play session.
Hire a Trainer or Behaviorist
In severe separation anxiety cases—if your pet can’t be separated from you for even short periods of time or spends all their alone time howling or destroying furniture—invest in a certified pet trainer or behaviorist. Trainers use techniques to help dogs and cats overcome stress and anxiety with positive reinforcement and show pet parents helpful methods to practice and implement on their own.
Consider Calming Supplements or Medication
Sometimes it could take a long time for your pet to unlearn panic responses to your departures. To help them along, speak to your veterinarian about medication and supplements to reduce his overall anxiety.
Krull is a proponent of pharmaceuticals in combination with behavioral modification. “I often equate it to humans,” she says. “If you start an anti-anxiety drug, but don’t start behavioral training with a coach, psychologist etc., you may not see great benefits.”
Each pet is different and there are many medication or supplement options to choose from.
Products That Can Help Pet Separation Anxiety
There are a number of toys and products that ease stress in your canine and feline companions as you transition to a post COVID-19 work life. To help pets feel safe, entertained and at ease when they are home alone for long periods of time, consider the following products.
Invest in a comfortable bed. A pet’s bed is their sanctuary, where they can retreat for a sense of security and peace. Plush beds with higher rims provide a greater sense of security, cocooning your pet in the warm and fuzzy goodness.
Use puzzles and treat toys. Durable chew toys and treat toys keep your puppy or kitten occupied for long periods of time. These products also provide a healthy outlet for their anxiety and prevent them from chewing on your shoes or scratching up your furniture.
You can introduce the toys ahead of your eventual return to work. “Choosing some time now for your dog to enjoy a food stuffed rubber toy while they are in a crate or pen with you in the room, you will help prepare them for being alone calmly when you leave the room,” suggests Jay.
Soothing aromatherapy toys that come scented with chamomile or lavender can also prove helpful for your anxious pet. Food puzzle toys eliminate boredom, provide an engaging hide-and-seek mental stimulation, and keep them occupied and rewarded, distracting them from stress triggers.
Consider CBD hemp oil: CBD (Cannabidiol) oil, extracted from the hemp plant and diluted with a carrier oil, is believed to relieve pain and inflammation and calm anxiety. CBD oil specifically made for pets can reduce nervous energy in cats and dogs and provide an overall sense of calm.
Keep your cat’s environment enriched. Playing with a wand toy with your cat at least once a day can give your feline an opportunity to hone their prey skills and boost his confidence. Introducing a puzzle feeder for your cat will satisfy their need to forage for food and have a stimulating experience when he’s alone. Krull also recommends cat trees, catnip and window perches.
Try a calming vest. Just like babies who calm down when swaddled, pets too find solace in a weighted garment that makes them feel safe. Whether you choose a weighted blanket or a vest, the gentle pressure applied on their bodies can promote relaxation.
Experiment with pheromone products. When a mother dog is lactating, she secretes pheromones (chemicals known as Dog appeasing pheromones or DAP) to help calm her puppies. Similarly, cats release pheromones concentrated around their face as a way of communicating with other cats, with some pheromones linked with feelings of calm and security.
Products with synthetic pheromones can be useful in pacifying your pets while you are away. Pheromones can be dispersed in the form of collars and sprays or diffused in the area where your pets reside. Be sure to introduce them before the actual triggering moment—when you are home together and everything is calm.
We hope you have a successful back to work experience with happy and relaxed pets at home.