Our pets have loved having us around nearly 24/7 as we’ve been working from home and adjusting to life amidst the coronavirus. While it’s great to spend time together, it’s also important to prepare for life after this new normal. There are steps you can take now to prepare your pet for your return to work, when they can’t be with you all the time.
Preventing separation anxiety now
When you are home with your pet constantly, they can become more attached and dependent on you. This can result in separation anxiety, where your furry friend isn’t confident on their own and can’t feel comfortable without you. It’s important for all pet owners to prepare for the transition, but especially newly adoptive pet parents (whose pets may never have experienced time without them around) should use the tips below to help the adjustment.
Associate your absence with positive rewards. When you leave your pet alone, give them a special treat, kong frozen with peanut butter or low sodium broth, or other high value reward that you only give during this alone time.
Build independence when you’re together and practice leaving. Teach your pet to actively choose to explore and be in a separate space from you. Training dogs for place, down, and stay cues will help them garner this independence and learn that it’s good to be on their own.
Gradually build up the duration of your pet’s alone time. Build up the duration over time, and work at a sub-threshold level. In other words, work at a duration that you know your pet can achieve. Begin leaving your pet by themselves for short periods before you need to go back to work. If your pet is anxious, you can start with just a few minutes at a time, and work up to longer periods. Set them up for success so they continue to learn – don’t push beyond their limits.
Provide a ‘den’ for your pet. Consider crate-training your dog if you haven’t already, or use a gated space. A crate provides a safe space for your dog to retreat to when they are anxious. Cats enjoy a quiet, darker space, tucked away from busy areas of the home. Always use exciting rewards so they come to love this space.
Ignore bad behaviors. Gently discourage certain needy behaviors like scratching or excessively seeking attention, to help them become more self-sufficient.
Preventing separation anxiety when you return to work
As well as preparing now to prevent anxiety in your pet, you can also take steps to help them when your schedule returns back to normal.
Increase exercise and play before leaving. Tire out your pet before you leave. If a pet has lots of excess energy, it’s more likely to turn into nervous energy and fuel separation anxiety. Take dogs for a long walk or run before work, or have a vigorous play session with both dogs and cats to help mentally stimulate and tire them out.
Give them something to do to fill the time. Mental stimulation will help keep your pet busy while you’re away. Slow feeding bowls or puzzle toys can provide your dog with a tasty distraction while you are gone. For cats, the Indoor Hunting Feeder by Doc and Phoebe works well.
Stay calm when leaving and returning home. Although it may be hard to ignore your pet’s greeting (dogs can be particularly exuberant!), giving them too much attention at these times can heighten their anxiety around arrivals and departures.
Switch up your routine when leaving home. If you follow the same routine, your pet may pick up on this and notice those departure cues: the sound of your keys, putting on shoes, or grabbing a bag. Mix things up so your pet doesn’t associate these signals with you leaving and subsequently with anxiety.
Consider using alternative measures like dog walkers and daycares. These services are a great way to provide socialization, exercise, and teach your pet. If you previously used them, re-establish contact with these businesses to see what their reopening policies are and consider using them to help fill in gaps when you are not home to ease the transition.
Tire out your pet before leaving the house, and give them something to keep them busy while you’re gone, like a puzzle feeder.
What to do if your pet is struggling with anxiety
Never punish your pet for displaying anxiety or for any behaviors experienced during periods of anxiety. Punishment is ineffective and only increases your pet’s stress levels.
With preparation and a gradual easing back into normal routines, your pet should hopefully be able to adapt. If, however, your pet is displaying signs of severe anxiety, speak to your vet.
Common signs of anxiety in pets include:
- Soiling in the home
- Destructive behaviour
- Excessive barking / whining / meowing
- Pacing / Restlessness
- Change in appetite or weight
- Change in mood
- Repetitive or compulsive behaviours
- Shaking / Trembling / Hiding
- Excessive licking or chewing, which may result in reddened skin and/or bald patches
For anxious pets, your vet may recommend calming collars like Adaptil or anxiety wraps like Thunder Shirts for dogs, pheromone diffusers like Feliway for cats, or discuss whether anti-anxiety medication may be right for your pet.
Help is available
If you’re a newly adoptive pet parent struggling with the transition, or you need assistance dealing with your pet’s separation anxiety, know that help is available. Speak to your vet for advice or consider hiring a trainer to help.
If financial circumstances are a concern, there are also a number of organizations that can help. The ACC’s Community Pets Program is one such initiative that can help provide free or low-cost training, and other assistance to help you keep your pets.
NYC residents can also reach the NYC COVID-19 Pet Hotline at 877-204-8821, for more information, advice and referrals to help support your pets.
And remember, Small Door members can chat to us 24/7 via the app if you have concerns your pet is struggling with anxiety.