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Help Pets Adjust to a New Normal
Back To School and Work? Your Pets Have Some Opinions
If you think the pandemic and staying home 24/7 was an adjustment for us, imagine our pets’ surprise at having us around literally all the time. Most pets had no problem acclimating to the new normal brought about by quarantine during the early part of the pandemic precisely because they got more attention. Dogs went on more walks and cats became accustomed to sitting in seemingly-always-available laps–so they relished in their new lives. For the millions of pets adopted during the pandemic, their “normal” only consists of having their families constantly by their sides–which they love.
Now, as children are off to school, young adults are headed to college, and pet parents are back in the office, pets get no advanced warning that their lives are about to change: and while some pets are malleable, and simply go with the flow, others–cats in particular–are famously finicky about alteration to their routine. Household changes can be extremely upsetting to dogs who suffer from separation issues. And don’t be fooled by the stereotypes of cats as aloof and independent: they can and do suffer separation anxiety. For anxious pets who hate to be alone, we can proactively help them adjust.
Here are a few tips and tricks for helping pets relax while you are off being a human:
Practice and See What’s Up
If your pets are currently accustomed to at least some of the family being around 24/7–go away and see what happens. Initially, try departing for only five minutes or so. Drop irresistible treats and see if your pet scarfs them up in your brief absence. If they do not, they may be anxious. In looking for signs of separation distress, I recommend that you spy on your pets and gauge their response to your absence with technology.
Cameras are now luckily pretty inexpensive, so you may be able to get a few to position throughout your house. If you only purchase one camera, however, point it directly at the door you usually depart from and then look for signs of separation anxiety. In dogs, these can include barking, whining, and destructive behavior–like ripping apart pillows. If you notice these behaviors–or if your dog hypersalivates (drools a lot), paces at the door, and/or constantly watches out a window–these are clear signs of anxiety. Cats who suffer from separation distress may vocalize, hide, or even take out their frustrations on other pets. Nervous cats and dogs may have accidents outside their litter boxes or lose their house training. If your pets exhibit signs of distress, have a veterinary professional watch the videos you have recorded since they are qualified to diagnose separation anxiety. For example, a dog ripping apart a pillow may not be anxious but actually having fun, so a veterinarian can assess your pets’ behavior and then explain whether there are other possibilities: perhaps your pup simply needs to learn to be home alone or may need more exercise in general.
If you believe your pet has separation anxiety, share a video of how your pet acts while they are home alone to a veterinary professional. Read more tips on how to determine whether your dog has separation anxiety and products that may help here.
Routine: Pets thrive on routine: so when your family is in transition, try to ensure your pets still follow a schedule, as best as you can. For example, if you leave for the office every day at 7 a.m., it would be great if–instead of just taking your dog out for business at 6:30 am–you also play fetch afterwards, even if it’s for just five minutes. This short interaction provides a little bit of exercise (which is better than none at all) and most importantly, helps your dog associate doing his business with a game rather than with returning to the house just so everyone can leave.
For cats, involve them in something your regularly do anyway. For example, if you watch a reality TV show every night at 8:00pm, regularly get an interactive cat toy ready for play time during commercial breaks. The point is to try to create a new standard schedule, and be as consistent with it as possible. Consistency and structure help to minimize stress.
Exercise: As the adage goes, “a tired dog is a good dog”. Exercise is an effective stress buster and pets experience the same “feel good hormones” from exercise as we do. Having said that, while appropriate exercise is always a good idea, pets with true separation anxiety will remain anxious, no matter how much exercise they get–so you will need to treat their anxiety at its core.
Of course, be appropriate with exercise: a marathon run with Basset Hound isn’t going to happen, nor should it. Be mindful of weather conditions, and never ever walk or run a dog in extreme heat.
Busting Boredom: Enrichment Ideas for When You are Away
DOGS: If you and your family will be gone all day, a responsible dog walker can help ease your dogs’ long wait for you to get home, and of course, offers relief for their bladders (especially for small or geriatric dogs). Here are some other enrichment ideas from our friends at Hinsdale Humane Society.
CATS: There are all sorts of exciting products for cats, including motion-detecting battery operating games of chase in your absence.
DOGS AND CATS: New camera systems allow you to speak to your pets and remotely dispense treats while saying “I love you“–so they get to hear your voice and get a treat simultaneously.
For any dog or cat with true separation anxiety, remote devices will not do a lot–however, they may help you deal with the stress of knowing your pets are suffering from separation anxiety–which is one reason why many people do not want to return to their offices at all. To better accommodate pets and motivate workers to return offices, some workplaces are even becoming pet friendly. Here’s more information from Purina on pet-friendly offices.
Today, there are a myriad of food puzzles which pets can work at to receive treats in your absence, a kind of occupational therapy for pets. Not only are food puzzles a sort of natural stress reliever, but they also provide a welcomed distraction. Also, hiding treats around the house encourages pets to use their senses to search them out and then figure out how to get the treats after they’ve been stuffed inside a toy. After working for a meal, cats famously catnap and dogs do the same thing. After playing solo and taking a catnap, before they know it, the kids are arriving home from school to wreak their usual havoc.
–Steve Dale, CABC
The American Association of Pet Parents (AAPP) is a national nonprofit dedicated to keeping pets happy, healthy and in their loving homes – and out of animal shelters.