With offices in some areas going back to business as usual, our days working on the couch with our pets at our feet may be numbered. But while you could be ready to trade in elastic waist pants for real clothes and Zoom for a conference room, your pet likely holds a different opinion. Big changes in routine can shake up even the most stoic of pups. (And yes, maybe even a cat.)
The transition may be extra challenging if your fur baby is one of the many lucky pets adopted during the pandemic. After all, they may not know any life that doesn’t involve 24/7 companionship. To keep their stress levels (and yours) down, we got the experts to share how to best help our pets cope with being at loose ends for long stretches of time.
What is separation anxiety?
First things first: What is separation anxiety in a companion animal? “Separation anxiety happens when a dog is very attached to their guardian and thus experiences high anxiety and stress when left alone,” explains Dr. Gary Richter, veterinarian and founder of Ultimate Pet Nutrition. “Plus, they’re unable to find comfort on their own.”
Why it happens to some dogs more than others is still a bit unclear. “Behavior is a complicated interplay between genetics, early life experiences and learning,” says Dr. M. Leanne Lilly, vet behavioral specialist for Dutch. “We do know that it’s highly associated with noise fears. If a frightening noise happens when home alone, the fear of the noise can get associated with being alone.”
Dogs who have been rescued or purchased at pet shops are more prone to it than those purchased directly from a professional breeder, she adds.
Symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs
This anxiety can manifest itself in different ways that can vary from dog to dog, says Richter. He points to these common signs to watch for, though:
- Unusual aggression
- Urinating and defecating in the house
- Excessive barking and howling
- Chewing, digging and other destructive behavior
- Excessive drooling
- Trying to escape
- Pacing and restlessness
How to treat separation anxiety for dogs
The first step should always be to talk with your veterinarian, urges Richter. That’s the best way to find out whether the anxiety is becoming a more serious issue for your dog and get help pinpointing the possible triggers. “Your vet can also rule out any possible medical conditions that could be causing your dog’s symptoms,” he adds.
If you’re still a few weeks out from your back-to-work date, use that time to ease your dog into the new routine, says Richter. He advises leaving home every day, gradually increasing the time you’re out.
Separation anxiety can worsen if you seem upset about the situation, so downplay your departure. “This means not spending too much time saying goodbye before you leave,” says Dr. Karin Sullivan, medical director for the Arizona Animal Welfare League. “Also, give your dog time after you return to acclimate.”
And whatever you do, never reprimand a pet for something they did while you were at work. “That’ll make anxiety worse, which will only increase the behavior you’re trying to stop,” insists Lilly.
What about cats?
Contrary to popular belief, our feline friends also hate to see us go. “Cats absolutely miss their person just as dogs do,” insists Dr. Christine Sellers, the veterinary advisor to Cat Person. “Dogs are pack animals and depend on each other for survival,” she explains. “Cats hunt independently but still seek out other cats for companionship in a colony setting. Cats crave attention and love from us. It’s just that they’re not like dogs, in constant need of approval from their ‘pack members.’”
Symptoms of separation anxiety in cats
Sellers has seen all of these signs crop up in cats who are suffering separation anxiety:
- Aggression, especially shortly before your usual departure time
- Urinating on shoes, bags, jackets or anything you take to work — this is intended to let others know that you’re “taken”
- Urinating under windows, by outside doors, on the couch, at a fireplace or on your bed — your cat thinks this protects the home from intruders while you’re gone
How to treat separation anxiety for cats
Sellers has advice, which is a bit different than best practices for canines. Before you leave, lay out clothing that you sleep in or wear often for your cat to nap on. If you usually play music at home, leave that same type of music on when you head off to work. “Then always greet your cat when you return home before you do anything else,” emphasizes Sellers. And lastly, no, your cat does not need “a friend” to keep them company. Many cat parents think bringing home a second cat ends loneliness, but “this will only increase the stress in the environment,” warns Sellers.
With all of that good advice in mind, here’s a rundown of smart buys that can ease this dicey stage for both of you. The goal is to keep your pet “comfortable eating, drinking and resting while home alone,” notes Lilly.
Through a Dog’s Ear ($39.98; amazon.com)
Sullivan likes this three-CD set of classical music with an acoustical twist that makes it especially appealing to canines. “It’s shown to reduce stress and anxiety,” she says.
Petcube Cam ($39.99; amazon.com)
A basic home video camera, such as this one, may bring you peace of mind during your first weeks back at work. “You’ll know exactly what your pet is doing, and if signs of stress are seen, you can monitor response to treatment,” says Lilly.
The Game ($55; fablepets.com)
This clever plaything looks basic, but don’t be fooled by its minimalist design. It holds up to 1.5 cups of dry dog food so your dog can snack away while enjoying interactive activity. Mental and physical stimulation for the boredom-busting win! “Food toys are great for keeping pets occupied in a positive way,” says Lilly. She reminds us to keep overall food intake in mind, though, as an extra “meal” five days a week can put on pounds fast. She also stresses the importance of having your pet play with it under your watchful eye before being left alone with it.
Mesa Bowl ($40; catperson.com)
Ergonomically designed, this raised, strategically shaped bowl puts your kitty into a natural eating position and keeps their whiskers from being agitated. Neatniks will appreciate the long tray that catches stray morsels, and the fact that it comes apart to pop in the dishwasher.
Thundershirt (starting at $37.95; amazon.com)
Sullivan is a fan of this special jacket, which gets its name from the terror pets experience during thunderstorms. This patented design applies gentle, constant pressure to calm nervous pups. The fabric will stay snug despite being soft and machine-washable. That goes for the kitty version too.
Frond Cat Tree ($399; tuftandpaw.com)
Sellers says that vertical perching areas for your cat, like cat trees, shelves and window hammocks, are essential to their climbing instinct. “Being up off the floor allows them to survey their environment and feel safer,” she says. This modern take on a cat tree has perches that are adjustable in height. The central pillar is wrapped in sisal, so it doubles as a scratching post.
Elk Antler Chew ($13; getjoyfood.com)
“Give dogs something to chew on so they have something to occupy themselves,” advises Richter. This cruelty-free antler “split” is sourced in North America and has a softer density that you might imagine. It’s perfect for small dogs and seniors. If you have a big dog or a strong chewer, try the Deer Antler Chew.
Best Friends by Sheri Original Calming Donut (starting at $23.03; amazon.com)
Do they make one in our size?! Dogs and cats who love to curl up will have sweet dreams in this plush cuddler. The rim lends a sense of security, as well as head and neck support. The soft shag fur is similar to a mother dog’s fur. When they can’t be at your side, this will be their happy place.
Leaps & Bounds Playful by Nature Cat Toys ($9.99; petco.com)
Distract your cat with…cute toys! Just do it strategically. “Bring one out before you leave for work, but don’t leave it out all the time. Rotate the toy weekly,” suggest Sellers. This pack of six is easy on the budget, perfect for doling out over the course of a month and a half.
Kong Classic Dog Toy (starting at $7.15; amazon.com)
The many fans of this versatile, natural rubber toy know that it stands up to woofers who chew hard and play hard. Sullivan suggests filling one with a mixture of peanut butter and dog kibble, then freezing it overnight for a long-lasting, chewy stress buster.
Cactus Silk Dog Bed (starting at $250; sebastiansays.com)
Talk about a pampered pooch. Your little love will be sitting pretty on this exquisite, cushy lounging spot. It’s handmade of Saharan Aloe Vera Cactus silk by women in Marrakech. The fabric is soft, strong, cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
Petsafe Kibble Chase ($29.95; chewy.com)
A fun solution for a dog who gobbles down all his food too fast, this hybrid toy-feeder will keep them moving while you’re gone. It roams around the floor, dropping morsels sporadically. Your pupper has to keep up to get the next nibble.
Petlibro Automatic Cat Feeder ($75.99; amazon.com)
Sellers suggests setting a timed feeder to release a treat every two to three hours while you’re gone. This highly reviewed helpmate ensures that kitty feels cared for in your absence. It’s clogproof and has a locking mechanism, dispensing up to six snacks a day.
Frisco Road Trip Puzzle Dog Toy ($10.98; chewy.com)
Sullivan sees puzzle-type toys as a boon for bored pup at home alone. We think an adorable suitcase stuffed with crinkly, squeaky clothes fits the bill. Your dog will have a ball getting each piece of their vacation “wardrobe” out of the hole. It’s big enough to be frustration-free yet small enough to be a bit of a challenge.
Petmaker Cozy Cave ($22.36; overstock.com)
Sellers points out that cats are enticed to anything that feels like a cave. “It should be the size of the cat, and no larger,” she says. “They crave the security of a small area.” Knowing that, it’s easy to see how any feline would curl up contently in this snug, sturdy hangout. The pillow inside is removable, with one plush side and one smooth side.