Preparing your pets for being home alone post-pandemic
With a normal life in close sight, many new pet owners, and indeed long-time pet owners are worried about leaving their pets for long periods of time, after spending so much time at home during lockdown.
The possibility of going back to the office may still seem far off, but it is best to avoid the worry of separation anxiety for you both. Pete the vet recommends creating a positive experience for your pets alone in your house now, so the idea of an empty home will eventually become more normal to them, and will help them find comfort alone for short periods of time.
Do Pets Get Anxious?
When Pete the vet was asked “do pets get anxiety?” his answer was “they absolutely do.”
Pete spoke on the Petfix Club Podcast about anxiety in pets:
“One of the interesting things that has developed over the last thirty years has been our understanding of animal brains. What we have been able to do is use the latest in dynamic imaging like MRI scans and so on to actually look at brain activity in certain situations. What we’ve realised now is that animals feel emotions, just as intently, if not even more intently than us humans. So, the parts of the brain which are highlighted with activity when humans are anxious, previously those same bits of the brain are highlighted in animals.”
Signs of Anxiety
It is important to understand animal body language, to be able to recognise signs of anxiety. Separation anxiety is one of the most common behavioural issues in pets and Pete often recommends putting a webcam in the room your pet is in when you leave the house to be able to spot the signs.
- Lack of appetite
- Body tenses up
- Eliminating indoors
- Tails hunched between their legs
- Visibly restless, running around barking yelping
- Excessive Barking and Vocalisation
- The destruction of things in the home
- Attempting to escape or hiding away
What can owners do to help their pets if they see these signs?
1. Burn up your pet’s mental energy
It’s important to give your pets physical exercise every day: on average, a dog should be walked for thirty minutes, morning and evening. And you should spend at least half an hour daily engaging with your cat if they are indoor only animals. If pets have this activity regularly, they are more likely to snooze and stay calm while you are away.
However it’s also important to burn up pets; mental energy: use food-releasing chew toys (such as Kong or the new Irish dog toy, K9Connectables, so that they spend time chewing, and working out how to get the treats out of the toys. Remember that dogs are not meant to be left completely on their own with any chews: there is always a very small risk that they could come to harm by chewing off a piece and choking. But with this reservation, make sure that they have plenty to keep them occupied rather than just confining their activities to their walks.
Remember too that doggy daycare is a useful way of burning up canine mental energy: once society returns to normal, it helps many dogs just to spend one or two days a week in a daycare facility. The busy socialising is fun, and also exhausting: after a full day in daycare, many dogs are so tired that they will happily sleep deeply for all of the next day.
2. Follow specific tips for preventing and treating separation anxiety
There are some simple ways that owners can adjust their daily behaviour to encourage pets to be less likely to develop separation anxiety. Try the following tips as part of your normal routine.
- Pretend to leave, and then don’t leave after all. Put your coat on, pick up your keys, check the doors. But then don’t leave after all. If you do this regularly, you will de-sensitise your pet to these cues. Your pet will not feel the same impending anxiety when you really do leave on other occasions.
- When you come back, ignore your pet for twenty minutes. If they rush up to you, all excited, pretend that they are not there. Then when they have calmed down and gone back to their snoozing place, go up to them and give them loads of attention. It is difficult to ignore your pet, but this is an effective way of stopping them from having a build-up of nervousness and excitement when they are expecting you to come home.
- Never punish them for “bad behaviour” such as chewing, defaecating, urinating etc. It’s understandable that you may feel annoyed with them, but “they know not what they have done”: it is not their “fault”.
3. If your pet is badly affected, do get help from your vet
Vets have a wide range of safe and effective prescription-only medication that can be a useful extra tool to help animals that are suffering badly from separation anxiety. And early treatment is better than waiting until undesirable behaviour has become entrenched as a habit. So if your pet has a serious problem with anxiety in your absence, do schedule a consultation with your vet to discuss pharmacological intervention.
4. Change your pet’s routine as gradually as possible
Pets enjoy regular routines and they don’t like sudden changes. So if you know that you are going to have to spend less time with your pets, you should try to instigate this change ahead of time. Start now, leaving your pet alone for short periods (e.g. 10 mins) and gradually increase the period when they are on their own. Monitor them on webcam, so that you can come back if they start to show signs of anxiety. Use the other tips listed above to ensure that your pets are less likely to suffer from separation anxiety in the first place.