Expert advice to help your pet transition back to routine life
By Heide Brandes
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit this spring, Jesse James Smith of Oklahoma City was among those who found himself at home due to being out of work.
He and his family spent hours in the home, and, although that was an anxious time for them, their dog loved it.
Then Smith had to return to work.
“Honestly, it’s been a little tough. My dog was already anxious, but the fact we all went back to work at the same time has been hard on him, especially since we were out of work for the entire time,” said Smith.
Shalon Reynolds of Owasso adopted a puppy during the pandemic. So far, the puppy has never been on its own all day, and Reynolds is dreading what may happen when she returns to work outside of the home.
“Yes, I am a bit concerned about leaving him home all day if I go to work,” she said.
Tulsa resident Montega Albert said her two dogs are used to having her always present. Albert runs a lash studio out of her house but recently acquired a brick-and-mortar building for her expanding business.
“I know that it affects them. I’ve been lucky enough to work from home, but now that I’m going to have an outside studio, I worry about how they will do,” she said. “Neither Murph nor Weensie have ever been here without me home all day.”
Owners being home all the time is a dream for pets, but experts say that pet owners should start working on strategies for their furry friends to prepare for a post-pandemic time when people start returning to work.
Because the pandemic caused so many people to spend more time at home, some cats and dogs have become dependent on a person’s presence, which, in turn, exacerbates the separation anxiety they feel when their humans aren’t present.
“Separation anxiety is a form of hyper-attachment disorder,” said Dr. Sarah Peakheart, clinical assistant professor at Oklahoma State University College of Veterinary Medicine. “They become so attached to their owner that they have a physical response when separated. Think panic attack. They can suffer physical panic when you leave.”
Luckily, humans can take certain steps to lessen that anxiety in their pets—but it’s vital to start now.
SAD AND SEPARATED
No one knows for sure what causes some dogs to have more severe separation anxiety, but approximately 20% of dogs in the U.S. have some level of anxiety. Mild symptoms can include behaviors like pacing or incessant barking. Other more severe symptoms, according to the ASPCA, include urinating and defecating in the house, chewing and other destructive behaviors, trying to escape the house to find the human, or coprophagia, in which some dogs defecate and then consume all or some of their excrement when left alone.
“If you have a new pet that you got during COVID-19, then that pet may not know any different. You being home all the time is all they have known, so they may never have learned how to be alone,” said Peakheart. “Dogs that have been abandoned before are also more likely to be more worried when you leave. There is a huge spectrum of behaviors and reasons.”
Even cats can experience anxiety when left alone. Paula Beth Bowden of Oklahoma City adopted a pandemic kitten in March.
“We have three cats, one of whom we adopted as a kitten in January. He, in particular, is completely accustomed to his humans being present 24/7,” she said. “He’s never really known anything else. Sometimes, when we return from our walks around the neighborhood, he’s waiting just inside the door. Other times, he’s watching at the window.”
Separation anxiety may not be as recognizable in cats, warned Peakheart. However, felines can become very attached to their human companion, especially if they were bottle-raised.
“Cats do have anxiety issues, but it’s not as easily diagnosed,” she said. “Cats really do sleep 18 hours a day, so it may not be as bad as in dogs.”
WAYS TO EASE THE ANXIETY
Gradually reacclimatizing your pets to being alone is the best way to prepare them for when you have to return to work or leave all day. Peakheart said one way to do this is to leave your pet alone in a room for short periods of time, then gradually increase that time.
“Go outside and work in the garden for a few minutes and leave your dog in the house,” she said. “Go for a walk for 10 minutes. Gradually, start going to the grocery store for a half an hour or so without the pet.”
However, the animal should be left in an area where it feels safe and entertained. Some dogs feel safer in a crate while others need a whole room to explore.
Another tactic is to change your dog’s departure cues. If a pet becomes agitated when you pick up your purse or keys, then he knows you are about to leave him alone.
“Make leaving a happy time. Give them special treats and toys when you leave,” Peakheart said. “Or, when you do pick up your keys, don’t leave. Sit with them and give them treats so they don’t associate the keys with leaving as much. Those balls you fill up with peanut butter or cheese are great; make them happy about you leaving by giving them the best treats ever.”
If an animal isn’t interested or soothed by treats, then consult your veterinarian. Although no quick fixes exist for separation anxiety, medications can help your furry fellow feel less frantic.
“Another option is pheromone therapy. There are synthetic pheromones that mimic the comfort pheromones mama dogs make when they are nursing,” said Peakheart. “These synthetic pheromones are really nice, and they have no side effects.”
If an animal is used to having a radio or television playing all day, then leave the television on when you leave to help reassure the pet.
Again, the best move is to talk to your veterinarian about treatments and ways to alleviate anxiety for any pet. Medications designed to reduce anxiety shouldn’t be considered a last resort if the animal suffers panic every day.
“If you had panic attacks every day, you would take medications to help. The same goes for your pet,” Peakheart said. “There are safe medications that can be given, but it’s very important that the veterinarian prescribes those. In the end, it’s important to be patient both with your dog and yourself. Every pet is different, so a combination of strategies may be needed. There’s not a single magic bullet to solve this issue.”