As vaccinations become more widespread, more of us are headed back to our offices and classrooms. While it’s a huge transition for both adults and kids, it can be especially difficult for pets, who may have a hard time understanding why they are suddenly left to their own devices after so much attention over the past year. Laura Lockhart, DVM, veterinary director at Clarendon Animal Care South, and Jacki Varacalli, owner, walker and trainer at JWalkers LLC, share how to make this change as smooth as possible for all of us:
Recognize and acknowledge the causes and effects of separation anxiety.
“Many pet owners experienced major long-term changes to their routines and schedules when the pandemic hit, and their pets have adjusted to having their families around much more,” says Lockhart. Pets thrive with a consistent routine, though, so even those who were well-adjusted before the pandemic hit can have anxiety when their families go back to work and school. “This increase in anxiety will also be exacerbated by families having less time to provide mental stimulation and exercise now that they are no longer able to take breaks with their pets as easily,” says Lockhart.
As a pet owner and trainer, Varacalli frequently fields calls from clients returning to work, and during the pandemic she has regularly posted tips online to help owners identify and combat issues before they escalate. “With everyone working and doing virtual school at home and all of the constant activities in our homes, our dogs are not getting the appropriate amount of sleep, decreased stimulation, and independence they should be.” While she admits it sounds like a lot, dogs need around 16 to 18 hours of sleep a day. “It helps them live happy, healthy and low-stress lives. Sleep deprivation because of increased noise, activity and interaction at home is detrimental in itself; a silent, empty house will just exacerbate any feelings of separation anxiety.
Implement behaviors and activities before the transition.
“The most helpful thing pets owners can do is to gradually desensitize their pets to their departures and to slowly adjust their pets to their new routine,” Lockhart says. Teach your pet a verbal cue like “quiet time” that they will associate with time in a confined space like a crate or other area, and distract them with a treat or toy to calm them as they enter it. Confine your pet for a short defined amount of time—around five or 10 minutes—while you work or engage in another activity within their sight. The goal is for the session to end without sensing fear or anxiety from your pet. As they become more comfortable, gradually increase the time; once it gets to 30 minutes without distress, spend time in another room instead, and eventually head out of the house for an errand or walk. “It takes a lot of time and patience to have success with desensitizing to graduated departures and crate/confinement training, so it is important to allow yourself enough time for the adjustment and to start working on this training right away,” says Lockhart.
But if you don’t want to crate-train or your pet doesn’t take well to it, there are other ways to get them acclimated to being alone, Varacalli says, like a safe room where they rest and relax, or baby gates set up to provide boundaries. “Presence doesn’t mean access; just because we are home does not mean our dog should be next to us the entire day.” When you notice pets seeking out those spots on their own, it’s a good sign of them decompressing. “Give them a ‘job’ while working on some independence, such as a Kong, long-lasting safe chew or a Lickimat,” she says. “The act of chewing or licking creates a brain chemical that will calm your dog.”
Use a webcam to keep your house and pet safe.
A webcam will help keep an eye on your pet and signs of stress and separation anxiety, which according to Lockhart could translate to household destruction, inappropriate elimination, excessive vocalization, panting, pacing, or refusal to eat. Make sure you leave enough food and water, obviously; Varacalli also recommends coming home midday if possible to walk the dog, or set up a schedule with a dog walker if that’s not feasible. “Leave safe toys and safe things to chew on to mitigate your items being their focus—no one wants to come home to the couch being completely chewed up.”
Make sure pets get plenty of exercise.
When your family is at home, give pets a few daily leash walks, off-leash play and regular activity in the form of food puzzles, toys, appropriate chewing, target training, and agility training, suggests Varacalli. “Pets who get plenty of exercise and mental stimulation have lower levels of anxiety and behavioral problems.”
Take further action in extreme cases.
Lockhart recommends Adaptil sprays and collars for dogs and Feliway sprays and diffusers for cats, over-the-counter products that emit calming pheromones to manage separation anxiety when used in conjunction with training and behavior modification. It’s best to speak to your veterinarian, though, to create a specific plan of diet, supplements, and medications. If pets are engaging in self-harm while you are away, Varacalli recommends seeing a qualified behaviorist.
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