There is plenty of joking these days that our pets are the biggest beneficiaries of stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic. With many families sheltering in place, signs in windows proclaim, “At least our dogs are happy!”
But what happens when we start returning to work and school?
Janelle Metiva, certified professional dog trainer and dog behavior specialist for the nonprofit Best Friends Animal Society, said separation anxiety can potentially become an issue for pets.
“If the dog is used to that constant attention and suddenly it goes away, that huge, abrupt change could definitely cause them some big initial panic,” she told TODAY. “We have to do prep work now so that it’s not such an extreme transition.”
The main thing we can do now is to help pets remember what it’s like to be left alone by taking a short walk or drive without them. At home, encourage them to enjoy independent activities, like working on a food puzzle or chew toy. We can hide treats in cardboard boxes around the house for them to find, she said.
Signs of separation anxiety include barking, howling, whining, scratching at doors and windows, chewing on the door, drooling and panting. A pet camera can help you know what’s going on when you’re not home. Are they upset because you’re out of the house, or is there something that triggers a reaction, such as noise from lawn mowers or a garbage truck? If so, Metiva suggests creating positive associations with treats or play.
“This is actually a great time to work on those random triggers that you’re only dealing with on the weekends normally,” she said. “So if things that normally cause a reaction now predict something fun and interesting is going to happen, the dog will start to change their association. When they hear the garbage truck, they’ll run and grab a toy or something if you can teach that it means play.”
When leaving or coming back home, stay calm to help our pets feel relaxed. If they seem agitated when you put on your shoes because it means you will walk out the door soon, practice putting on shoes when you aren’t actually going to leave.
While you're away, you can play soothing music or — for dogs that prefer the sound of human voices — an audiobook.
“There have been studies that have shown dogs really like reggae,” she said. “Classical music is fine, too, or easy listening, jazz.”
In severe cases of separation anxiety, such as a dog causing a lot of destruction or harming himself, Metiva suggests checking with a veterinarian about potentially using calming medication or supplements. She also advises seeking help from certified separation anxiety trainers, who typically offer remote consults.
Cats can also experience separation anxiety, according to Samantha Bell, cat behavior expert for Best Friends Animal Society.
“Cats have this reputation and stereotype of not really needing people, but that’s not true at all,” she told TODAY. “If you just let them live their life without forcing hugs on them or carrying them around and things like that, they will become extremely bonded to you and thrilled that you’re home all the time.”
Like dogs, cats thrive on routine, so she said if you’ve changed things while working remotely, such as feeding four to five times a day instead of two, start scaling back to what you can maintain once back at work.
In contrast, if you haven’t introduced your cat to a food puzzle yet, now is the time. That way the feline will have something to occupy her brain while left alone. Also, practice walking out the door in a calm way, then stay outside for a few minutes before returning.
“If you’re really worried about your cat being anxious that you’re gone, they’re going to sense that,” she said. “So you want to kind of fake that everything is fine and don’t make a big dramatic deal about leaving the house.”
Signs a cat is experiencing separation anxiety include excessive vocalization (lots of meowing), overgrooming to the point of licking off fur into bald patches, destructive behavior and urinating on items that smell like their favorite human.
Clearly, preventing separation anxiety benefits both pets and people.
Bell also suggests building a cat’s confidence by making time for play every day with a wand toy, sort of like a kitty fishing pole with a mouse or feathers on the end of the line. Just 10 minutes while watching TV can do the trick.
“If you give them a chance to feel like a predator, you are going to reduce their stress and build their confidence and build their bond with you,” she said. “Then you’re setting your cat up for success once you go back to work.”