Pet caregivers who have been working from home for months due to the pandemic may find that when they return to their workplaces their furry friends begin acting out because of separation anxiety.
Rover.com reports that 97% of survey respondents say they’ve bonded more closely to their dogs during the pandemic and 58% are concerned about their dogs experiencing separation anxiety when they return to work.
“So many people are working from home and at some point we expect to go back to normal workdays and that would be a transition. It could trigger full blown separation anxiety. It’s really like the dog goes into a panic,” says Emily Keegans, Chief of Animal Behavior at Seattle Humane Society.
“Dogs who are already anxious are more likely to get it,” says Keegans. “It’s not necessarily something the owner does but it seems to be triggered by something that changed.”
Your dog may become distressed before you even leave the house — he sees you picking up keys, putting on your coat, wearing your work clothes.
“Those departure cues let the dog know ‘oh, you’re about to leave me’ and you’ll see panting, pacing, trembling,” says Keegans. “Those are the big ones you’ll see. Some (dogs) will kind of shut down and go into their bed in a depressed mode.”
You may discover your dog has separation anxiety because neighbors tell you the dog is whining, howling and constantly barking, or you find drooling by the door or window indicating the dog has stood there looking for you.
“You’ll see chewing around the front door or window, destruction of blinds. Something that’s related to getting out,” says Keegans.
It’s important to note that destruction and house soiling that often occur with separation anxiety aren’t the dog’s attempt to punish or seek revenge on you for leaving him alone but are actually part of a panic response.
“It’s a really hard thing because you can’t comfort your dog,” says Keegans.
Punishment, crating or getting another pet won’t help a dog with separation anxiety. Punishment may actually increase the dog’s separation anxiety, and he will still engage in anxiety responses in the crate.
Getting another pet usually doesn’t help an anxious dog as his anxiety is the result of his separation from you, his person, not merely the result of being alone.
The key is to do as much as you can so your dog is comfortable being left alone so it’s not a shock.
“What we’re focusing on right now is preventing a problem,” says Keegan. “Leaving the dog once a day, even if it’s for a short time, pairing a special treat with that. You can leave them for ten minutes one day and gradually build up.”
Keegan says going back to the regular eight-hour workday routine is going to be a big shock for a dog.
“They need to know sometimes they’re going to be left alone and that’s OK,” she says.
Keegan recommends giving the dog a treat that he only gets when you leave him alone.
“Never give them that treat any other time,” she says.
So, the dog thinks well I don’t really like it when mum leaves but I get the peanut butter Kong.
Seattle Humane recommends the following techniques for a minor separation anxiety problem.
- Keep arrivals and departures low-key. For example, when you arrive home, ignore your dog for the first few minutes, then calmly pet him.
- Leave your dog with an article of clothing that smells like you, an old tee shirt that you’ve slept in recently, for example.
- Establish a “safety cue” – a word or action that you use every time you leave that tells your dog you’ll be back. Dogs usually learn to associate certain cues with short absences by their owners. For example, when you take out the garbage, your dog knows you come right back and doesn’t become anxious. Examples of safety cues are a playing television, a bone or a toy.
For more severe problems, Seattle Humane recommends the above techniques be used along with the desensitization process outlined here.
Because the above-described treatments can take a while, and because a dog with separation anxiety can do serious damage in the interim, some of the following suggestions may be helpful in dealing with the problems in the short term:
- Consult your veterinarian about the possibility of drug therapy. Medication is a temporary measure and should be used in conjunction with behavior modification techniques.
- Take your dog to a dog day care or boarding kennel.
- Leave your dog with a friend, family member or neighbor.
- Take your dog to work with you, even for half a day, if possible.
Cats get anxious too
A 2019 study found that cats are just as attached to their caregivers as dogs. Some cats experience anxiety when left alone for extended periods. And while they are not as destructive as dogs, they do express themselves.
Signs of separation anxiety in cats include:
- Excessive vocalization (crying, yowling, meowing)
- Not eating or drinking while caregiver is away
- Urinating or defecating outside the litter box
- Excessive grooming
- Destructive behavior
If your cat is showing signs of anxiety, here are some things you can do:
- Provide perches so your cat can look outside, and if possible install a bird feeder that she can watch
- Play with your cat at least once a day and provide toys
- Let your cat “hunt” by placing food in a puzzle feeder
- Hide food throughout the house for the cat to find
Whether you have a cat or a dog, it’s always a good idea to consult your veterinarian if your pet exhibits new behaviors.
Image by herreid