With cautious optimism, it is time to start preparing our furry friends for our return to a modified pre-pandemic life. As quickly as we began to be home most of the time, we can return to the office, leaving our pets at home for extended periods of time. A sudden change in our habits can have detrimental effects on our pets’ mental well-being.
When cats ‘act out’ and dogs wait at the front door or yowl while you are away, they are pining for your return. This is classic separation anxiety. We have talked previously in puppy-training columns about this behavior, but it is definitely not unique to youngsters. Excessive clinginess, howling, pacing, over-grooming, urinating in inappropriate areas, and destroying items are some of the clinical manifestations of this behavior. Many times the anxiety associated with your leaving only gets worse, not better without intervention. Do not assume that the cat or dog will, “get used to it,” as time goes on. Nor assume that they are getting revenge upon you.
Separation anxiety needs to be addressed like any other medical condition. They are uncomfortable and it is our duty to help them. There are a few things which you should never do. First, do not punish your pet. Simply, negative interactions only make your dog or cat fear you and second, they have no idea why you are being men to them! It will only make the anxiety worse. Second, do not praise the anxiety with love and attention. Think of it like rewarding a poorly behaving child: the reward will only promote the behavior.
While you and your family have been home, your pets most likely received more attention than pre-pandemic. Remember that you need to keep up this stimulation and exercise. Dogs and cats do sleep quite a bit, but need more than only a few minutes of stimulation per day. Consider longer walks with the dog, daycare, going to the park, teaching new tricks, etc. Play with the cat and also try new training, too! One of the main concepts of puppy-training I espouse is that a tired dog is a better dog (physically and mentally). If your dog is tired before you leave the house, they will be calmer and hopefully less stressed.
Remember to adjust your behaviors when you come and go from your residence. The goal is to make your absence non-stressful. At least five minutes before you leave, do not give your pet any attention. Walk out and definitely do not say goodbye to them or even talk to them. When you come home, repeat for at least five minutes. This will prevent the ramp-up of anxiety during your absence and should make a meaningful difference in their comfort. It is vital that all members of the household practice this behavior.
Also consider leaving for short periods of time now, so that your pet has time to adjust to a new schedule. You may consider putting on your shoes randomly, rusting your jacket, or even starting the car for a few minutes. Do all of this without talking to your pet.
For both dogs and cats, consider providing some entertainment while you are away. Hiding small treats around the house is easy and can keep them occupied for some time. Treat / food-dispensing toys are also a great distraction tool. Be creative.
Separation anxiety should not be ignored. Usually the above behavioral techniques are able to decrease anxiety in your pet. Some dogs and cats will respond beautifully, whereas others may have problems adjusting to a new routine. In some cases medications may be needed. Should your pet not transition back to their prior (or new) routine, medications may be needed, and this is a discussion to have with your veterinarian.
Here’s to being hopeful. Be safe.
Dan Teich, DVM
Next, practice short absences. When you’re at home, make it a point to spend some time in another room. In addition, leave the house long enough to run an errand or two, then gradually increase the time that you’re away so that being gone for a full day becomes part of the family routine.
Changing the environment
Boredom makes separation anxiety worse. Providing an activity for your pet while you’re gone, such as a puzzle toy stuffed with treats, or simply hiding treats around the house will make your absence less stressful. Other options for dogs and cats include collars and plug-in devices that release calming pheromones.
To maintain your bond while you’re gone, place a piece of clothing that you have worn recently in a prominent place, such as on your bed or couch, to comfort your pet. Similarly, you can leave the TV or radio on — there are even special programs just for pets — or set up a camera so you can observe and interact with your pet remotely. Some of these come equipped with a laser pointer or treats you can dispense.
Using supplements or medication
In some severe cases, when the animal harms itself or causes property damage, medication or supplements might be necessary. These alter the brain’s neurotransmitters to create a sense of calm.
While some are readily available without a prescription, it’s a good idea to get advice from your veterinarian to determine which are safest and most effective for your pet’s situation. Medication can help reduce the anxiety, making it easier for the pet to learn new coping skills. A behavior modification plan accompanying the use of medication can help manage this problem.
Separation anxiety is difficult for both you and your pet. But a few simple changes can make a huge difference as life returns to some semblance of normal.