How to Help Ease Your Pet's Anxiety When You Go Back to Work, According to Vets
If anything has brought us joy and comfort—as well as amusing domestic chaos—during the pandemic, it's been our pets. They became our Velcro companions, and peeling apart when the time comes may not be so easy. "As we gear up for our eventual return to normal daily activities it's important to remember that our pets have gotten used to us being home 24/7," says Rachel Barrack, D.V.M., owner of the mobile veterinary practice Animal Acupuncture in New York City.
When cats and dogs are suddenly left alone, it can trigger not-so-charming behaviors like scratching, chewing (RIP, slippers) and excessive barking. Beyond being a nuisance, Barrack says, these behaviors could be a sign of separation anxiety, or an unhealthy amount of fear or distress when you're gone. Here's how to smooth the transition for your four-legged BFF.
How to Help Your Pet's Anxiety When You Go Back to Work
Practice leaving now.
Every pet needs to learn to handle their owners leaving and coming back, says Carol Harris, CAAB, a certified applied animal behaviorist and owner of The Educated Pet in San Diego. Try going out twice a day on your own, even if it's just for five minutes. (Make sure they're in a safe space away from medications and garbage.) And because "I'm leaving" cues like putting on shoes, grabbing keys and closing the blinds can cause panic before you even head out the door, Harris suggests doing them multiple times a day, without going out, to make them meaningless.
Stick to the schedule.
Three walks a day, snacks at lunch—yep, your pet may be loving this stay-at-home routine. "But dogs and cats—especially cats—are very schedule oriented, and sudden changes can cause stress," says Brian Bourquin, D.V.M., founder of the Boston Veterinary Clinic and host of the podcast Tails from the City. As soon as you know your routine could change, start shifting their feeding and exercise times to match your new schedule, he advises. If your plans involve doggy day care or a dog walker, consider easing that in, as well.
Give 'em space.
As hard as it is, back off the daytime snuggles and playtime to help your pet adjust to being alone. (Plus, all that attention can deprive her of proper rest, which could throw behavior off, too, adds Harris.) So even when you're home, let the attention be on her terms. And encourage solo entertainment. Give your dog a puzzle toy or a Kong filled with a healthy frozen treat. Set out toys for your cat to chase, or set up a window seat or climbing tower.
Here are some options that will keep your furry friend mentally stimulated at home:
Ask for help.
If you think your pet is showing signs of anxiety, including unusual agitation (hiding, shaking) or sadness, talk to your vet. (They'll be able to rule out other causes too.) Treatment for anxiety may include a combo of training, medications, a certified behaviorist and patience on your part. "Often, behavioral issues take time to rectify," says Barrack. Giving ample time to adjust to being apart will do wonders for your pet—and you.
This article first appeared in EatingWell, March 2021