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As humans return to work and school, separation anxiety in pets may increase

As humans return to work and school, separation anxiety in pets may increase

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MERIDEN — Maisy is about a year old. She is part black Labrador, part bloodhound and has quickly settled into her new role as a cherished sixth member of Kristen Wallenius’s family.

Maisy was found abandoned as a puppy in Alabama, and had become accustomed to the constant loving attention of Wallenius, her husband and their three children. Now she and other pets face a new challenge — going through stretches of their days at home, alone, without a human around. She is one of many pets adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Maisy’s family, conscious that their beloved dark-furred companion may become anxious when they are away, have been trying to gradually help her get used to the notion that just because they may leave the house during the day, they are not leaving for good.

“For her, because she was abandoned, she never thinks we’re coming back,” Wallenius said.

“I take her for walks in the morning before I leave,” Wallenius said. Maisy will go out for another walk when Wallenius returns during her lunch break. Then she will get another walk at night.

Abrupt changesto routine

Dr. Kristina Park, co-owner of East Side Veterinary Clinic on Paddock Avenue, explained that the abrupt changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have been also been stressful on pets. The changes began with people working and learning remotely from home. Now they are returning to work and school.

“A lot of these pets weren’t used to having their owners home all the time,” Park said.

Park said clients have reported new behavior issues over the past several months. For example, cats urinating outside their litter boxes.

When cats are stressed, that stress can often be seen in medical problems, like bladder inflammation, which can lead to the inappropriate urinating, Park said.

“We’ll see cats in stress for different reasons — when they move into a new home or move out, when there are thunderstorms or when people go on vacation,” she said.

Animals have different ways of showing stress. The most obvious are destructive behaviors such as tearing couch cushions and scratching furniture and walls. In other cases it is things like overt amounts of affection when their owners return home and constantly seeking attention.

“I’ve been saying that from the beginning, these pets are going to get used to their humans being home, that it’s going to be hard for them when they start going back,” Park said.

And many families, like Maisy’s, adopted during the pandemic.

“It was a good time to get pets and train it,” Park said. “But dogs especially got used to their human owners being home all the time, leading to the separation anxiety.”

A more widespreadissue than peoplerealize

A potential upsurge in behaviors caused by separation anxiety is a phenomenon that animal behavior experts like Stephanie Borns-Weil have been cautiously expecting.

Borns-Weil, a veterinary behaviorist and professor at Tuft University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Massachusetts, said it’s still too early to tell how much of a surge they will see.

Borns-Weil described separation anxiety in animals as a “way more widespread issue than people realize.”

The animals who get the most attention are the vocal ones and the ones that exhibit destructive behaviors. But separation anxiety is actually a common disorder among dogs, and even cats, too.

“Dogs are social animals,” Borns-Weil said. “We expect a lot of them, for them to remain alone all day.”

“There is a lot of silent suffering going on,” Borns-Weil said, describing those silent suffering animals as being “sub-clinical.” Those animals are at risk of having their silent anxieties develop into full-fledged separation anxiety, she said.

The five-to-six month period during which many people have been working from home is short enough that behaviors have not become permanent. With some training and practice, pets and their owners can alleviate anxieties.

“You have to start teaching that puppy they can be alone, that if you put them in a crate with a chew toy, they will be OK,” Borns-Weil said.

Alleviating anxiety

The length of separation anxiety, whether it’s a few months or several years, can indicate how difficult it will be to overcome. For longer suffering animals, it will be more difficult, Borns-Weil explained.

Modifications include distractions and making sure that a human’s coming and going from home is not that big a deal.

“So if you’re going to leave, the last thing you do is pay attention to your dog,” Park said.

She suggested staggering the extra attention, leaving about 10 minutes between when your pet receives the extra pets and rubs, and when you leave home. If you have a special dog bone, bring it out 10 minutes before you leave. Your pet is distracted.

“So your dog is not the last thing when you leave,” Park said. “And the same thing when you come home. It’s the hardest thing in the world to do — to ignore your pet for 10 minutes.”

Leaving your dog in their crate while you hang up your coat and put away your work and school bags can help. The point, Park explained, is to make sure your coming and going isn’t the focal points of your furry friends’ days.

Another simple modification is putting your purse over your shoulder, even when making a short trip to the mailbox or when taking a walk around the block, making departures less easy for pets to catch onto.

Other measures, like leaving on a television or radio, or a device that plays sounds that animals find calming can help. Trainers specializing in behavior can also help.

Park said some owners may opt to install in-home cameras to monitor their pets.

If owners use in-home cameras, she suggested paying especially close attention to the times immediately after humans leave and about an hour before they get home. Pets can catch onto their humans’ routines pretty quickly, Park said. How tuned in they are to those routines may indicate some level of separation anxiety.

Most of those anxiety issues can be addressed by behavior modifications. Park recommended medications in only the most extreme situations.

What it boils down to is building confidence in pets, Park said.

“Most of the anxiety in pets is due to lack of confidence,” she said. “So when you are training them, you are essentially teaching them how to be confident.”


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