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Pet behavior and returning to work

Is your pet exhibiting bad behavior now that you are out of the house and back to work? Here’s what to do!

When predictable routines are unhinged, as has occurred due to the cataclysmic changes caused by COVID-19, such interruption to the flow of everyday life sets the stage for increased stress for both people and their pets.

Of special concern for both dogs and cats as a result of the pandemic, is the heightened anxiety they are likely to experience during the eventual separation from their human family. During the time of social distancing, many animals have likely adapted to and become increasingly reliant upon the constant companionship of their human family members. But as people begin to transition back to work, school, or other obligations, animals may experience increased angst when they are suddenly left at home alone again for long periods of time. Or, for other pets with humans in the essential workforce, irregularity in when their humans are at home or away may have left the animals feeling anxious and on edge from the start.

Thankfully, for both dogs and cats who have been longtime members of the family, and those freshly adopted into the home during the pandemic, there are ways to equip animals to better deal with times of change and with separation related stress; including both proactive and interventional training strategies that can ease animal angst during times of transition.

Recognizing signs of separation related stress

Listen to your pet’s needs: While our dogs and cats can’t verbalize their discomfort, their internal emotional state can be communicated through changes in their body language and behavior. A sudden behavior change, or concerning rise in behavior, such as increased potty accidents inside of the home, increased vocalization, extra neediness and clingy behavior, or sudden destructiveness, are all ways dogs and cats may express internal discomfort and distress.

Signs of stress to be aware of during separation include the following:

  • Avoidance of food (sudden disinterest in eating, barely touching or totally avoiding tasty food left out to enjoy while you’re away.)
  • Pacing
  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Inability to settle in for an actual long rest, without once again being up and going back into the same scan and pace reaction
  • Excess salivation and drooling so much the dog appears wet or leaves what appears to be a puddle of drool
  • Being extra clingy just before you leave or upon return
  • Anxious shadowing around the home
  • Acting worked up, anxious, irritable or on edge just before leaving, while you’re away, or upon your return.
  • Destructive behavior (chewing and scratching up household items). For dogs, such destruction when related to separation is especially likely to take place at exit points of the home, like near doors and windows.
  • House accidents or urine marking behavior in otherwise house-trained pets
  • Increased vocalizations (ongoing barking or howls; increased meowing or yowling)
  • Self-injury (as may be caused with broken teeth or nails in attempts to escape) 
  • Changes in personality, such as acting more depressed and lethargic. Or, anxious and on edge. Or, in other cases, seemingly more irritable and pone to aggressive type behavior.

Track the signs of stress

Certain signs of stress during separation may be more noticeable, while others are easier to overlook, meaning stress may go untreated while the animal continues to suffer, or the stress escalates to the point where it is finally noted. For that reason, one of the best ways to proactively, preventively and interventionally assess how your pet is coping with times of change, is to film your dog or cat while you’re away.  Watching your pet for the first 10 minutes as you prepare to leave can also be enough time to allow insight into how your animal copes with your absence.

Another way to track your pet’s progress is to monitor their activity while you’re away. An activity tracker, like Sure Petcare’s Animo, which easily fits on a dog’s collar, can indicate barking bouts which are a direct indication of underlying anxiety. The tracker also indicates excess shaking, which can also indicate a panicked response in your absence. Or, a sudden spike in activity may show that the animal is doing anxious pacing and is unable to settle for prolonged periods of time, showing elevated levels of stress.  Using the Animo to compare the animal’s behavior changes from when the family is at home, or before the times of separation, the animal’s ability or inability to cope can be better understood.

Assess the impact of absence upon the animal’s eating routine

Another indicator of separation anxiety is how the animal is able to eat, or not eat, just before and while you’re away. A sudden onset of anorexia is a sign that many people miss. But, if the pet is too upset, they’re unlikely to want to eat. And, their family may misinterpret what’s taking place as their dog or cat is simply not being a morning eater, or that they are ‘spoiled’ and want to have attention or their family around when they eat. However, what really could be taking place is that the animal is too upset to eat when their family is away, because their body literally goes into fight or flight panic response, which can impact the animal’s ability and desire to eat and digest.

Using a smart feeder is one way to track your pet’s eating habits and note any changes or concerns. For cats, use of a smart feeder, like the SureFeed Microchip Pet Feeder, that measures portion size and allows for ongoing oversight of eating patterns on the associated app, is especially helpful for monitoring eating habits and addressing changes or concerns. For cats, tracking their eating habits is especially vital both because cats are especially adept at hiding their illnesses, and because cat eating habits are particularly sensitive and negatively impacted by change. And, if the cat cuts back on what they eat or stops eating altogether, their body can experience shutdown and a potentially life-threatening situation, that’s best addressed early on with the cat’s veterinarian.

The SureFeed Microchip Pet Feeder Connect also allows animals to access their food on their own timetable, and without competition from other pets.  Since cats eat several small meals each day, rather than one or two large meals, feeding from a smart feeder allows for cats to have ongoing access to their own food, without over reliance upon the presence of their humans. And, with smart feeders like the Feeder Connect, competition and food stealing from other pets is also deterred, as the cat’s microchip only allows access for one specific cat.  This helps put the control, continual access, and by extension, calm contentment back into the paws of the individual cat, whether their humans are at home or not. 

Acclimate animals to alone time

Animals may have come to rely upon receiving ongoing attention and constant companionship from their humans throughout the day during quarantine life, including sustained cuddle sessions, multiple long walks, and increased play sessions.  Both dogs, and especially cats, become attached to having a regular routine that allows them to anticipate what’s likely to happen throughout their day.

When possible, incorporating happy alone time for the pet, even before the family members fully return to school, work or other outside activities, can impart a sense of greater calm by proactively preparing the pet for times of absence.  This can be done by having multiple separations throughout the week, even for just 10 to 20 minutes at a time, to practice the animal’s ability to remain relaxed when left alone. Or, when at home with your pet, still having time throughout the day where they’re encouraged to do their own thing as you do the same, aiming to largely ignore your dog or cat and encourage independent activities while you’re busy.

This can also help to set a bathroom routine more akin to the habits the animal will eventually need to take up when their human begins spending longer periods outside of the home.

Setting the stage for less stress

To help our pets better deal with times of stress, including acclimating to change, it’s important to remember the pet’s perspective. When a dog or cat acts out, they aren’t doing so out of spite. Instead, when animals misbehave, it’s often due to other underlying issues; including boredom or lack of other outlets to express their natural behavior. The animal’s antics may also be an outward expression of internal distress.

When setting the stage for being alone, dogs often do better when not confined to a small space, but instead allowed to move about more freely. However, such freedom must be tempered limiting the animal’s access to potential hazards and off-limits areas, especially if they’re prone to chewing or destruction.  While some animals may settle into their crate space, others may panic when enclosed in such area, with confinement anxiety further compounding the stress of being left alone.

Cats may benefit from having a specific room or having the doors to external rooms, such as bedrooms, closed while their humans are away.

Strategies to ease stress when alone

Change is so distressing to both people and their pets because it removes the sense of control and choice that’s an important aspect to retaining a sense of calm. One way to provide increased choice and less destructive behavior into a dog or cat’s day and help provide a sense of greater self-confidence, is through use of food puzzles.

Just like dogs, cats also benefit from the mind stimulating properties of food puzzles that encourage the cat to think and physically manipulate toys to win out the edible treasures within.  Food puzzles create a productive way for the cat to focus its excess energy.

In addition to providing a cat’s meals via smart feeder, you can also increase the fun for felines by hiding portions of their meal, special toys, and catnip treasures in locations around the home.

Seeking out reputable sources of professional help

Both dogs and cats can experience distress when left on their own. It’s important from both a preventive standpoint, as well as in response to signs of stress, to help increase an animal’s ability to cope in your absence. And, when it comes to signs of stress, it’s particularly important for animals to have support as soon as possible.  Anxiety and panic when left alone are only likely to worsen over time.

It’s essential to know that your pet’s veterinarian is your partner in addressing your animal’s separation anxiety. Your pet’s vet may also work in combination with a reward-based trainer or certified behavior consultant. Or, you may seek out specialized help with a veterinary behaviorist, certified applied animal behaviorist or associate applied animal behaviorist.

Possible addition- There are also online, vetted sources of free support that can help to proactively reduce your pet’s stress during times of separation, including those available at fearfreehappyhomes.com

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