Headed back to work with pandemic easing? Here’s how to get over that pet-owner anxiety
As the stranglehold of coronavirus stay-at-home orders begin to lift, in-learning school returns and businesses begin to loosen up, there’s a looming fear of anxiety hovering over what to do with long-time and recently acquired pets that have become accustomed to having their owners nearby 24/7.
In a recent report “The Pandemic Pet Adoption Boom: What We’ve Learned, One Year Later” by Rover.com, 93% of those surveyed said their “pandemic pet” improved their mental and physical wellbeing and 80% said working from home during the quarantine was more enjoyable.
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But they were anxious about going back to in-person work and leaving their pets at home.
Silvia Sanchez, 42, a mother of three who lives in Van Nuys, is among them.
She adopted a 4-month-old Maltese poodle designer mix back at Christmastime after her 21-year-old daughter moved out in October and took the family’s dog, which made her 10-year-old daughter sad.
The white furry Lexi had been tossed around by two previous owners before her cousin found the 5-pound dog and surprised her with it.
“Nobody wanted her,” Sanchez said. “She was really sad and depressed.”
Sanchez, an administrative accountant at a Woodland Hills furniture school, has been working from home part-time this past year, but expects to return fulltime to the workplace when her daughter starts in-class learning on April 22.
For Sanchez the clock is ticking.
She’s barely left the dog alone for more than an hour. Now she’s anticipating a dramatic change.
“She’s so little,” Sanchez said. “I feel so bad for her. I cringe at going back to work and her staying here. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to leave her. I never had to do this.”
Sanchez thought about getting another dog to keep Lexi company, but there’s no room in her budget for that expense.
“This is my big dilemma right now,” she added.
Los Angeles based Nicole Ellis, a certified professional dog trainer, a pet lifestyle expert and a Rover.com spokesperson, said as a dog trainer that makes her happy to hear because it means people are thinking about their upcoming challenges, which can lead to a proactive approach and stress-free animals.
Ellis says simple steps can reduce anxiety not only for the pet, but its owner too.
Not making a big deal when you leave the house and slowly working up to the amount of time the animal is left each day is going to set dogs up for success along with the lesser anxious cats that adjust easier to change.
“If we are still working from home, right now it’s the perfect time to start this training,” Ellis said. “I recommend leaving for short periods of time, starting with something as short as five minutes and building it up and when we leave not making a big deal. We are sad to leave our animals but if we make a big deal … it gets them excited and we are gone and then they are stressed out.”
Another step is to start a set routine for dogs and cats who are really good about keeping an internal clock in check. It might take back-to-work attitudes instead of the lounging-around routines many have fallen into.
“If you know you will probably be starting work and leaving the house at 8 a.m., well let’s start not sleeping in, let’s start getting up and doing a routine because animals do really great on routine,” Ellis said. “They understand expectations. By getting them on that schedule, we are going to go on that walk in the morning and we are going to eat breakfast at this time and I’m not going to get home at 6 o’clock so we are going to eat dinner at 7 o’clock, the sooner we can start that and get our pets adjusted, especially on those weekdays, it’s going to help them adjust when we go back to work.”
Ellis recommends those returning to the workplace think about their new schedule that might include long days, especially if the animal is particularly anxious as some adopted from a shelter tend to be.
A dog walker, doggie play dates, doggie daycare and doggie puzzles could be part of the solution.
Anxiety is not healthy for animals. Signs include excessive barking, pacing, howling and crying.
Prevention is key.
“A dog walker (can) split up your dog’s day a little bit,” Ellis said. “Help him get some energy out so he’s not sitting by the door just waiting. He’s going to have fun going for a walk, expending energy and tiring himself out and if you are considering doing this, I suggest you do this even before you return to work. It’s a great time to create that positive association where you give your dog walker a few treats, you hand off your dog on a leash and your dog learns to trust this person. This is a person who takes you on really fun adventures.”
Cats need routine just like dogs; breakfast and dinner at the same time for example, new toys and not making a big deal when you leave the house.
“The more we stress out, the more we are going to make our animals stressed out,” Ellis said. “Take baby steps. The more we can plan, the better for cats and dogs.”
Victoria Voith, a professor at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, a veterinarian and a diplomat at the American College Veterinarian Behaviorists, weighed in as to how all these changes of being home alone for a long stretch of time might affect pet behavior.
She sees a distinct difference between dogs and cats having separation anxiety, although some cats can get distressed while others can cope being solitary.
Some of the signs of stress in dogs are vocalization such as barking, whining or crying; elimination or defecating; and destructive behavior within minutes of the owner’s departure.
Cats, if stressed, may spray an owner upon their return home.
Voith believes cats suffer separation anxiety, but it isn’t as noticeable because they usually can’t be as destructive like dogs and their meows or plaintive cries don’t carry like a dog’s bark.
“So, owners may not know that their cat is missing them,” she said.
Voith cautioned in some cases there could be something physically wrong with the animal, so owners need to be on the alert for the distinction and perhaps have a veterinarian intercede.
“Dogs become attached to owners and when it experiences separation anxiety it engages in excessive vocalization trying to get the parent to come back or the attachment figure to come back,” Voith said. “They may eliminate or defecate because they are nervous because the parent is not there and they may become destructive or hyperactive searching for the parent. When that fails, they may become depressed and not move at all for a while.”
Voith said neighbors will tell a dog owner if it is barking for long periods of time, but using a noise- or voice-activated recording device with a continuous feature or a video camera will help determine how long a dog is actually barking throughout the day.
If a pet shows signs of distress, there are things an owner should not do like not suddenly putting the animal in a cage or crate and leaving it if it’s never been in one. But, if one decides to use one, it should be done gradually.
“I like exercise pens … because they are bigger,” Voith said. “Suddenly confining them is not a good idea.”
Voith is against using a punitive collar for shocking a dog if it is having separation anxiety.
“Using a punitive technique when the dog is exhibiting signs of separation anxiety may stop the behavior but it doesn’t cure the separation anxiety,” she said. “The dog is still distressed even if it’s quiet.”
Voith cautions against punishing a dog when the owner returns home if the animal has been destructive, because it can’t associate between that and what it may have occurred hours before.
Another feature that can help determine if a dog is having separation anxiety is if the animal acts super exuberantly when the owner returns home that could last up to five minutes.
“It’s an extremely boisterous greeting and it’s prolonged,” Voith said. “Even if a dog in the past has been good when left alone, if owners have spent continuous time with the dog for weeks or months it may exhibit distress when the owner leaves.”
Voith said all is not lost because there is FDA approved medication for the treatment of separation anxiety in dogs to be used in conjunction with behavior modification to reduce its anxiety.
“Stress can be severe but it’s usually treatable,” she added.