By Heather Blakeman, CPDT-KA

Prepare your pet to cope with your return to work and life outside of “Stay-At-Home” orders with these tips.

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in many changes in day-to-day life for both humans and animals here in Louisville and Prospect, Ky. Along with practicing new social distancing protocols, many Americans have been working from home or are avoiding leaving the house when possible by limiting unnecessary travel and errands. Therefore, many pets are seeing a lot more of their family during the weekdays than they are used to! Here at Dogwood Vet Clinic, we have heard from many of our dog pet parents that their pups are enjoying the extra time and attention from their owners, though it is important to note that many  cats and even some dogs have had a difficult time adjusting to the new routine of owners or school children being home more often. For cats especially, veterinarians across the United States are reporting an uptick in cases of anxiety-related behaviors such as inappropriate elimination, excessive grooming, hiding, anorexia, and aggression or moodiness since the stay-at-home orders were announced. If you have noticed these behaviors in your cat, please reach out to us – we can help!

Today, we want to discuss how to be proactive in preparing your pet for the next big change that many pet families are anticipating – the return to the office or place of work. This may leave many pets reeling from the sudden reversion to their old work-week schedule. In fact, many pets are at risk for developing separation anxiety whenever a major schedule or life change occurs. This is especially the case for both young puppies who have spent most of their lives with a family at home or for older dogs who are at risk for Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. We want to provide our pet families with steps they can take to proactively prepare their pets for these anticipated changes.

First, we need to define separation anxiety. There is a complex of behaviors known as “separation-related behaviors” that can manifest when pets are left alone. Many pets who are left loose in their house and get bored when left alone or don’t know any better, will destroy furniture, toys, or dig in the trash. These “destructive boredom” dogs are not experiencing anxiety and but would benefit from some management changes. The use of safe food-stuffed puzzle toys (like a peanut butter filled Kong), a comfortable kennel to relax in or dog proof room, adequate exercise, and mental stimulation is likely all these dogs need to improve. Likewise, a dog who is incompletely housetrained may urinate or defecate in the house when left alone. These dogs will also benefit from improved management using a kennel and a remedial, positive reinforcement based house-training program.

However, a true separation anxiety dog may also destroy furniture, toys, or dig in the trash in addition to urinating, defecating, or vomiting when owners leave. They may also exhibit hypersalivation (drooling), panting, pacing, vocalizing (barking/howling/whining), panic, and may even attempt escape which can lead to self-injury. These dogs may worsen when kenneled or confined and may be too stressed to eat, which means puzzle toys are ineffectual. Many separation anxiety dogs will require a combined approach from your veterinarian and a qualified behavior professional to improve once separation anxiety develops.

But did you know that you can prevent separation anxiety in many pets? Teaching dogs that being alone is a good thing should be just as important as teaching a dog to sit or stay off the counter. However, with the multitude of training tasks many parents are (rightfully) focusing on, teaching pets that being alone is safe is an afterthought or they may have never thought of it at all! Parents of young puppies in the middle of their socialization window (the first three months of their life) especially have a golden opportunity to easily teach this important life skill to their dog. But the following tips can be used for any age dog (or cat!) to teach them to enjoy being left alone.

  • Praise and reward your pet for voluntarily engaging in relaxing or settled behaviors such as laying in their bed or kennel on their own. You may even consider sprinkling their bed, cat perch, or kennel with treats at random, so it seems to your pet that “the treat fairy” has made a visit. This will help them associate their bed, pet proof room, or kennel with positivity. *Please note – you may not want to do this if your pet has a history of resource guarding, food aggression, or if you have other pets or children in the home.
  • Provide your pet with puzzle toys for mental stimulation and exercise. While you are home is the best time to introduce your pet to beginner level puzzle toys such as the Kong, Snuffle Mat, or a Licki-mat. More advanced toys like a well-sized frozen Kong or a Buster Cube are a better choice to leave your dog with unattended, as they don’t have bits and pieces that are easy to ingest. Cats do well with hunting toys such as Doc and Phoebe’s Indoor Hunting Feeder. Check out our Facebook video on using Puzzle Toys for Enrichment for more ideas.
  • Practice making alone time happy time. Start with short 5 minute or less periods of confinement and provide positive reinforcement using treats or puzzle toys to teach your pet that alone time can be tasty and fun! Build up the amount of time your pet can relax in their kennel or pet-proofed safe area. If your pet is anxious despite treats and positivity, reach out to a qualified behavior professional to troubleshoot this step.
  • Practice transitioning back to your new routine. If you have been sleeping later due to the lack of a commute, consider setting your alarm a bit earlier each day leading up to your return to your normal morning routine. Take short trips away from the house as well, especially near the times you would normally be gone during the day. Structure your pet’s feeding, exercise, and rest time more like it will be when you return to work.
  • Consider adding in calming therapies. Calming music (try “Through a Dog’s Ear” or “Through a Cat’s Ear” on Spotify, Amazon Music, or the Alexa App), dog or cat appeasing pheromones (Adaptil for dogs or Feliway for cats), or the Thundershirt for dogs (only if you are sure your dog is unlikely to chew on it). Older pets may also benefit from supplements to help treat and prevent Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. You may also want to discuss calming supplements or medications with Dr. Chris or Dr. Katie if your pet still seems somewhat stressed by the new changes.

No matter if your pet is young or old, a cat or a dog, they will benefit from a proactive effort to help them adjust to coming schedule changes. Please let us know at any point if you would like to discuss specific therapies or approaches for your own pet. When it comes to your pet’s health and behavior wellness, we are committed to helping Louisville, Kentucky pets and pet owners to live their best life!