Pet Mental Health and the Return to Work

How do I prepare my pet for my absence?
Animal shelters and breeders across the country have reported record numbers of dog and cat adoptions in recent months. Our animal companions have been steadfast for us through our many months of worry, working from home, and uncertainty. What happens when our work routines change, sometimes abruptly?

The Problem With Sudden Changes In Routine
A change in routine, such as suddenly being alone for many hours every day, is a major cause of separation anxiety for dogs and cats.

Separation anxiety is more than a little whimpering when you head out the door. It’s major, unwanted behavior that happens every time you leave or are away. For dogs and cats, this can mean excessive pacing, barking or howling, whimpering or self-grooming as you get ready to leave. In some cases it can mean urinating or defecating around the house, often in places where scents linger, such as on bedding or rugs, or destroying household items in your absence. Extreme clinginess or neediness is another symptom.

What To Do. And Not.
First, it’s important to understand that it’s not about you. Animals don’t act out of spite. Instead, it’s a signal of extreme distress and frustration that should be approached like any other psychological symptom. Your pet doesn’t want to experience separation anxiety any more than you want to.
For this reason, scolding is NEVER the answer. For one thing, your pet won’t connect the punishment with something that happened hours or even a few minutes earlier. And punishment may only exacerbate your pet’s anxiety and stress.

Similarly, going to the opposite extreme by praising or giving affection when your pet is suffering anxiety also will make the problem worse. The goal is to create a balanced relationship so your pet tolerates being alone. First, get your pet checked out by a veterinarian to rule out physical conditions, such as a urinary tract infection if your pet urinates in inappropriate places.

Next, make sure your pet gets plenty of exercise and mental stimulation. For dogs, this may mean a long or brisk walk every day. Getting exercise shortly before you leave the house may put your dog in a more relaxed state while you’re gone. It’s harder to feel stressed when the endorphin levels are elevated.

Start by leaving the house more frequently, increasing the duration each time. This will help your pet get used to the idea of you being away, and that you always come back.

Don’t underestimate your pet’s ability to learn and recognize details in your daily routine. If you normally wear certain clothes for work, carry a particular work bag, or give them a special treat before leaving, begin these “rituals” again as we leave for our excursions.

Our pets’ walks or mealtimes may have been shifted because we were home more. Maybe we slept longer or napped, went on more walks to get out of the house, or maybe ate dinner later or stayed up late watching movies. Reinstitute your pet’s old walking and meal times. Resist the urge to feed them, take them on a walk, or take them outside to play during hours you will normally be at work. Keep to a routine as much as possible.

Treating Separation Anxiety With Behavior Therapy
We are talking about your behavior not the pup. The goal is to make your absence seem like no big deal. Making a fuss over your pet when you leave or arrive home only makes matters worse. If you treat it like it’s routine, your pet will learn to do the same. I get my stuff together and calmly walk out the door. I don’t say goodbye to the puppies.

Try to figure out when your pet starts to show signs of anxiety and turn that into a low-key activity. If it’s when you pick up your handbag, for example, practice picking it up and putting it back down several times over a few hours. Similarly, get dressed or put on your shoes earlier than usual but stay home instead of leaving right away. Try starting your car’s engine and then turning it off and walking back inside.

Next, practice short absences. When you’re at home, make it a point to spend some time in another room. In addition, leave the house long enough to run an errand or two, then gradually increase the time that you’re away so that being gone for a full day becomes part of the routine.

Changing The Environment
Boredom makes separation anxiety worse. Providing an activity for your pet while you’re gone, such as a puzzle toy stuffed with treats, or simply hiding treats around the house will make your absence less stressful. Other options for dogs and cats include collars and plug-in devices that release calming pheromones.

To maintain your bond while you’re gone, place a piece of clothing that you have worn recently in a prominent place, such as on your bed or couch, to comfort your pet. Give them their favorite blanket. Similarly, you can leave the TV or radio on – there are even special programs just for pets – or set up a camera so you can observe and interact with your pet remotely.

Separation anxiety is a real thing, and as our routines change in the months to come, we can help transition our furry companions.

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Embolden Psychology
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