As COVID-19 restrictions ease, adults are returning to the office and children will be returning to school. During this time, your pet has likely grown accustomed to having someone at home with them. You might have adopted a new dog or cat recently with a history of separation anxiety (or you aren’t sure how they’ll do when left alone). Whatever your pet’s situation, there are steps you can take in order to reduce the likelihood of separation anxiety and minimize their stress.
Some pets might show minimal signs of stress during a time of change, while others suffer from more severe stress, or even separation anxiety. Watch your pet’s body language for signs they are anxious. You might see these signs throughout the day when you are present, or these signs might become more noticeable as you get ready to leave. Setting up a camera to check in on your pet while you’re gone can also help you determine their stress and anxiety levels.
If your cat or dog shows these signs as you’re preparing to leave or while you’re gone, explore separation anxiety treatment with your veterinarian and begin a behavior modification program.
If your dog or cat does develop separation anxiety, it’s important to realize that they’re not acting out of spite or because they’re bored. They’re acting out of fear and anxiety and are truly distressed. We don’t know why some pets experience separation anxiety and others don’t, but some factors can predispose pets to this condition.
Additionally, if your dog is especially clingy, follows you everywhere, or needs to always be by your side, they may also be more likely to develop separation anxiety when you go back to the office.
Never punish your pet for separation anxiety, remember they are acting out of fear and anxiety and punishing them will only make them more fearful and anxious.
Having a consistent routine and structure helps your pet feel secure. If you’re anticipating a change in routine, it’s best to slowly acclimate your dog or cat to the new schedule in small increments. If possible, start incorporating new parts of your upcoming routine as early as a month in advance.
Pets can experience something called “emotional contagion”, meaning they internalize anxious signals from their owners. Therefore, it’s important to not exhibit signs of stress in front of your pet and try to keep life as normal as possible.
Set up an area where your dog or cat feels safe, calm, and relaxed. Many dog owners will crate train their dog or set up a playpen for them to stay in while alone. Introducing these areas well in advance of your first day out of the house can help your pet relax and enjoy their time in their own “room” while you’re gone. Cat owners can provide a cat tree with areas to hide out in or set up a comfortable cat bed near a window for their cat to sit and watch nature.
Encourage your pet to settle in their safe place while you’re home. You can practice leaving them there with an interactive toy or chew while you work in the other room with the door closed. Feed your pet their regular meals in this area to continue to build positive feelings with being in their space.
Physical and mental exercise goes a long way in reducing stress for our pets. Beyond giving your pet important physical exercise, playing with your dog or cat also reduces stress (for both you and your pet). For senior pets who might not be able to physically exercise as much as they used to, provide them with lots of mental enrichment activities, such as food puzzles or short clicker training sessions throughout the day.
Weeks before you return to the office, start teaching your pet that being left alone is no big deal. Give them an interactive treat toy as part of what will be your “leaving for work or school” routine.
When you first start practicing leaving your pet alone, start small! This might be only a quick trip to the mailbox the first few times. Try not to make a big production of your leaving or returning — stay calm and low-key when saying goodbye or hello. The goal is for your pet to acclimate to being alone — this is called desensitization. If your dog or cat is not showing signs of stress while alone, you can increase the length of time you’re gone.
On the day that you finally do go back to work, minimize some of the triggers that might tip off your pet that you’re going to leave.
If you’re noticing that your dog is struggling with being left alone, consider whether they would do well in dog daycare. If daycare isn’t right for your dog, having a dog walker come by in the middle of the day can help relieve your dog’s stress and give them a chance to exercise. Hiring a dog walker can be especially helpful if your dog has grown accustomed to midday walks while you’ve been working from home. If your office is dog-friendly, consider whether your dog will do well in an office setting. Cat owners can have a pet sitter visit midday to check on their cat and provide a play session to help them relieve stress.
If you notice that your dog or cat is having a difficult time adjusting to the new schedule (even during your trial sessions) talk with your veterinarian for treatment options. It’s important to address your pet's separation anxiety early to both relieve their suffering and keep the signs from progressing.