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Tips for easing separation anxiety in pets when the humans go back to work

I snapped this phone one day from the second floor landing at my house as I was leaving for work. I hadn't seen Faith and Midnight all morning.
I snapped this phone one day from the second floor landing at my house as I was leaving for work. I hadn't seen Faith and Midnight all morning.

The other day I received a news release from a pet insurance company about separation anxiety in pets, with a focus on dogs.

You see, as non-essential businesses start opening up, the dogs and cats who are used to hanging out with their human friends all day will now have the house (and their owners' desk chairs) to themselves.

Now for my cats, who think nothing of getting into yarn and winding it around every object through three floors, only to stretch sleepily on the couch when I come home, an empty house poses a unique set of delights.

For other pets, including those who enjoyed quiet days before mid-March when the world went home, this change in the routine can be mildly upsetting to downright terrifying.

Even my cats would exhibit a bit of this before the pandemic. They would spurn all affection in the early morning hours only to jump into my lap once I was ready to leave for work, purring and settling down for a protracted cuddle - especially on days when I was out of lint rollers.

One cat, Frances, always aloof and not one for snuggles (although she'd sit within a few feet of us), has since developed some separation anxiety now that she's older. She'll actually howl at the door if she thinks the house is empty.

We found that routine and consistency helped keep separation anxiety at bay.

For instance Midnight, now lives alone with one of my sons. She's very skittish and timid and flips out in an empty house. So she comes to kitty daycare at my house. Even if the people aren't home, the other cats are (including one of her daughters).

My son brings her every week day in her little blue carrier, which he sets by the kitchen closet. And she instinctively knows the hour of his return and patiently waits by the back door like a little puppy.

That was a great routine - until the first time he left town for a few days on busisness. At 10 o'clock that night, when the entire household was in bed, she was still patiently waiting at the back door. It took a lot of coaxing to persuade her to come upstairs.

So we tried a new routine: when he's gone for a few days, the carrier moves to the laundry room shelf. We return it to the kitchen on the day of his return.

If that sounds far-fetched, well. you should see how confused the cats look when I mistakelnly set the wrong color bowl in front of them (and yes, they have designated spots on the rug).

If we're late in feeding them, the cats will sit in those spots and wait for the food to come.

I tell them good-bye when I leave and exhort them to be good kittens. I call out "hello" when I return.

But different pets respond to different strategies. Trupanion offered these for dogs, although they might work well with cats, too.

Practice and desensitize

Keep leaving and returning home a very neutral and low-key experience for your dog.

Petting them and giving them excessive amounts of attention before leaving or when you get home will only cause them to notice your absence that much more.

Desensitize your pet to cues you are leaving - grab your keys, put on your shoes and coat at various times of the day without actually leaving.

If your dog has any cues that you are about to leave, practice those to desensitize your dog to your behavior.

Practice leaving the house for very short periods of time: leave for 30 seconds and then return. Increase that time to 1 minute, 5 minutes, 15 minutes, etc. \

Vary the times to confuse your pet and show him that, regardless of how long you're gone, you will still return.

Prepare your pet

Only give attention on your terms.

Exercise them before leaving to help reduce anxiety.

Preparing your house

Leave a TV or radio on to fill the void of a now quiet house.

A favorite enrichment toy and snacks may distract them, too.

Consider your options

This may include crate-training your dog, hiring a pet sitter or taking your dog to dog daycare.

If a dog is still having trouble with separation anxiety, contact a dog trainer with expertise in this area.


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