We are all looking forward to that time when things get back to normal; when we return to work or school or a regular schedule. But what about our pets? They’ve been by your side 24 hours a day for the past several months and will struggle to adjust or readjust to the new normal. They won’t understand that this quarantine is temporary and you have to go back to working out of the house for 8 hours a day. They won’t understand the (to them) sudden change and lack of consistent contact. How do you help prepare your pet for that eventuality? And how do you help them cope with the adjustment when you do return to normal?
What does Separation Anxiety look like?
There are many symptoms of separation anxiety. Some of your pets may already have some separation anxiety but if not, here are some of the symptoms to look for according to the ASPCA. Be sure to rule out medical problems for any of these behaviors with your veterinarian before treating your pet for separation anxiety.
- Urinating or defecating: some pets will urinate or defecate in unwanted locations (in the house or outside of the litter box) when separated from their owners
- Barking or howling: a pet with separation anxiety will often bark or howl persistently to indicate distress when they are left alone
- Chewing, digging, or other destructive behaviors: typically if these behaviors are a result of separation anxiety they only occur when the pet is left alone, unlike general destructive behaviors of an untrained or young pet. These behaviors can often cause self-injury if the pet gets splinters from chewing furniture or ingests something they shouldn’t
- Escaping: a pet who attempts to escape from an area in which he or she is confined when alone or separated from their owner is showing signs of separation anxiety. This is another behavior that can cause self-injury as the pet attempts to climb, dig, or push it’s way out of an enclosed space.
- Pacing: pets who exhibit this behavior will move in circular or fixed patterns when their owner is not present
- Coprophagia: in some cases dogs will defecate and then consume the stool they have expelled due to the stress of being alone
If your pet is showing any of the above symptoms, have them evaluated by your veterinarian. It may be helpful to video your pet as you prepare to depart from home and when left alone or separated from you. This can help your veterinarian make a plan for treatment.
How to prepare your pet?
The most important thing to do is start preparing your pet for the coming change now. According to Marjie Alonso, the executive director of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, we have to remember that our pets are individuals and just like us they are having differing reactions to this quarantine. Now is the time to start helping them adjust to the upcoming transition. Here are some tips from animal experts to help you help your pets:
- Teach your pet independence and how to be alone comfortably.
- Catch your pet being calm throughout the day, especially when the dog is ignoring you, and reward him or her with calm and pleasant attention.
- Give your pet something delicious when you leave. Alonso states that “If you start stuffing that Kong with mashed potatoes and roast beef every time you walk out the door, the dog is going to be like, ‘Here’s your coat.’”
- Provide separation with baby gates or doors for short periods of time, giving your pet a special treat or a puzzle toy, slowly allowing your pet to self-soothe and accept being alone.
- If you are home all day, make sure you ignore your pet sometimes and do not give him or her constant attention or give in to constant demands.
- You should not set attention and activity levels now that are difficult or impossible to maintain when you transition back to work, according to Mikel Delgado, a cat behavior researcher at the University of California-Davis.
- He also states that owners should avoid working in places (like the sofa) that pets associate with cuddles or play.
- Make sure your pet has alone time daily.
- Alonso suggests that you make sure your pet has alone time. If you used to leave for work at a specific time go through your normal preparations (put on shoes, grab purse or briefcase and keys) and leave the house for a short period of time.
- Dog trainer Tracy Krulik specializes in separation anxiety and agrees with Alonso. Take time away from your dog daily, even if it is to sit under a tree or take a work call from your car.
- Laura Sharkey, a dog trainer in Arlington Virginia, reminds owners that if your dog was previously crated when you went to work, he or she should still have some alone time in their crates. Crate training can give your pet a safe space and can help your pup learn that being alone is ok and is even sometimes preferable.
- Provide mental stimulation for your pet, both while they are alone and while you are home.
- Sharkey tells owners to take breaks form work to run through obedience cues or teach new tricks or give meals in food puzzles. It’s important to give your pets mental stimulation so that they are better able to cope with their alone time.
- Fear Free veterinarians and behaviorists suggest that owners meet their pet’s physical, social and exploratory needs every day with routine, scheduled activities including play, positive reinforcement training, leashed walks, or environmental enrichment.
- Make sure your arrivals and departures are not a big deal. If you make a fuss over your pet when you come home or leave they may be more likely to believe it is something to stress over.
- Dr. Katherine Houpt, professor emeritus of behavior medicine at Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine, gives owners the following advice: “When you are heading out for your first day back at work, it would be best to give them a brisk walk or a game of fetch before you leave. Before you leave be sure to leave a long-lasting treat such as a rawhide or a Kong toy with frozen melted cheese inside. When you come home don’t greet them until they are calm and not jumping on you or running in circles.”
What if your pet already has separation anxiety?
Happily, many pets have been recently adopted during the quarantine. However some of those pets (as well as current pets) may currently experience separation anxiety, especially if they have been re-homed multiple times. If your pet already has separation anxiety, Steve Dale, a certified animal behavior consultant, suggests that owners take a proactive stance and utilize several tools at their disposal to help their pets both now and during the transition back to “normal.” Those tools include:
- Pheromone products: Both dogs and cats can benefit from an external source of calming pheromones, like those provided by Feliway or Adaptil. Most pheromone treatments are either diffusers, much like the Glade Plugins you use around the house, sprays that you can put on blankets and bedding, or collars that use the pets’ body heat to stimulate the release of calming pheromones close to the pet’s nose.
- Probiotics: Dr. Karen Becker and other veterinarians and nutrition experts have completed studies that show that your pet’s digestive health can affect their psychological well-being and behavior. Probiotic supplements can help alleviate stress in your pets. Several companies, including Purina, have developed probiotics designed to help calm your pet and assist with stress management.
- Nutraceuticals or supplements: Nutraceuticals are a combination of the words “nutrition” and “pharmaceutical.” According to Fear Free, nutraceuticals are food-derived substances that are claimed to have an effect on health. They are similar to and sometimes labeled as supplements. Products given the label nutraceutical are not regulated so be sure to do your research to figure out the safe and effective choices. Nutraceuticals and supplements can come in the form of chewable tablets, oils, or powders that promote various physical responses from pets. Calming nutraceuticals and supplements may help your pet with separation anxiety. Some experts suggest CBD products can also assist in reducing anxiety in pets.
- Comfort vests: Vests like the ThunderShirt work by applying consistent gentle pressure, much like swaddling an infant, to your pet’s torso to help calm their anxieties, fears, or over-excitement. Research has shown that this type of pressure can cause the pet to release a calming hormone such as oxytocin or endorphins. Some pets (particularly cats) may need time to become accustomed to wearing a comfort vest so be sure to allow your pet to adapt to this at their own pace and encourage them to move normally.
- Background noise: Some dogs seem to like having background noise to help drown out sounds that could be stressful or startling, like neighbor’s voices, garbage trucks, or construction work. Choose something soothing that will not have that type of noise, such as a nature or children’s channel on TV or turn the TV or radio to a station playing classical, light jazz, pop, or other pleasant music. YouTube has several hours long playlists designed specially for pets or you could try a designated “pet radio” from Pet Tunes. Studies have shown classical music and even reggae can be calming for dogs.
What to do when you go back to work/school?
- Continue the routine: As much as possible, maintain the routine you established during quarantine. Take a morning walk or have a morning playtime, get ready for work, then give your pup a frozen Kong or your cat a puzzle toy and head out.
- Utilize the tools at your disposal: Don’t forget that you can use calming pheromones, supplements, or comfort vests to help your pet stay calm during this transition until they have adjusted to the new normal.
- Don’t wait: If your pet is showing signs of developing or increasing anxiety contact your veterinarian. Left untreated, anxiety often worsens over time.
- Get help: Pet sitters and dog walkers can help with this transition! Pet sitters can come give your cats some socialization and enrichment time to entertain them while you are at work. Sitters can also come play with or walk your dog to help them deal with any anxieties that have resulted from your return to work. Check out our services and rates to find one that fits your needs and let our sitters help you and your pet!