How to help dogs and cats get over separation anxiety as their owners return to work
- The transition back into the physical office can be daunting enough for people, but it may also pose a range of psychological challenges for their dogs and cats
- Make changes in leaving the home gradual. First, leave for a walk around the block, then move up to 15 minutes away, and increase the amount of time
As she typed on a laptop computer on the dining room table last month, wrapping up some work for her job, Yvonne Grobe could feel the weight of a very serious stare burning into her from the next room.
Working in her current office space in San Carlos, California during the Covid-19 pandemic, Grobe slowly turned her head to the left. There, the family’s energetic 3 1/2-year-old dog, Marcus, was up on the back of the couch – his head tilted, tongue out and panting, big brown eyes focused on Grobe, tail wagging furiously.
Grobe has been working from home for more than a year, and during that time, the 28-pound (12.7kg) grey and white French bulldog/Boston terrier has grown very close to her. Grobe says that Marcus can be cuddling with her husband or playing with her two daughters, but as soon as she enters the room, the dog heads her way.
“I went from somebody not necessarily wanting a dog to saying that he’s the best thing that’s come into our lives,” Grobe says. “He just loves me, and I love him. He completes our family.” Grobe’s husband is an electrician, so he has worked all through the pandemic, going to job sites. Her daughters, ages 10 and 12, were home part of the time during the past school year.
So with Grobe at home, Marcus has become quite accustomed to her daily routine – morning coffee, online meetings, short doggy breaks outside to pee, play and to say hello to neighbours. Then there’s lunch, a quick walk and, of course, more attempts at eye contact when possible.
But those days are soon going to be over. Grobe, like thousands of employees around the world who have been able to work remotely during the pandemic, is making plans to return to a regular schedule, in an office that isn’t home.
“Now that we are slowly starting to return to work, I’m afraid that it’s going to be very difficult for him,” Grobe says. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with him. I’m sure he’ll be fine regardless, but he is really attached to me.”
The transition back into the physical office can be daunting enough for people, but it may also pose myriad challenges for pets like Marcus who have become even closer to their families during the pandemic, says Amanda Kowalski, director of behaviour programmes for the San Diego Humane Society.
However, Kowalski says, there are a number of ways people can help prepare dogs – and cats – for long days without the companionship they have got used to and make a smooth transition to being home alone again.
Kowalski suggests first getting a feel for what kind of behaviours your animal has, what they’re really doing, by using a camera. “See what happens when you leave them alone and record them for a few minutes to see if there is any transitional stress,” she says. “Are they stressed on lower levels and bored, or are they getting into destroying toys or experiencing true separation anxiety?”
She suggests making any changes in leaving the home gradual. First, try leaving for a walk around the block, then move up to 15 minutes away, and start to increase the amount of time. Some dogs do well in a crate or pen, she says, and that could be a good step for those animals, but for other dogs, being in a crate for long periods while owners are away working can make them claustrophobic and exacerbate anxiety.
“Make any changes gradually,” Kowalski says.
She adds that because dogs tend to be highly social animals, it can help to have a trusted friend or family member on standby, or hiring a dog walker, to come over to break up the day.
Kowalski says medication such as stress-relieving nutraceuticals and pheromones “could be incredibly helpful during this time”, and that a consultation with your pet’s veterinary surgeon about those drugs might be an option. Kowalski says cats can also have separation anxiety and depression related to being left alone after months of togetherness with their owner.
Donna Quinn, an executive assistant, says she is concerned about how Pumbaa, the cat she adopted in 2016, will react when she goes back to work. She’s been home with him since March 17, 2020.
She says she and Pumbaa have got closer during that time – one of the “good things that came out of this whole ordeal”. He follows her around like a dog, Quinn says, and likes being in every room she’s in.
“A month into [the pandemic], instead of hanging out under the bed or in my bedroom, which is what he always did, he started climbing on the desk, laying down near me or sitting on my lap,” Quinn says. “I started putting his blanket up on the desk where I worked.”
Her five-year-old Bengal has become the star of Quinn’s online Zoom meetings and often sits on her lap. “In the beginning, I was like a mom trying to put her kids aside while she’s on the phone,” Quinn says. “You could see me talking and with my left hand pushing him, trying to get him to lay down. Now my colleagues all know him.”
Quinn says she is starting to look into working two days at her company’s headquarters, and three days at home. She did a test run one day last month and when she walked in the door at 5.30pm, Pumbaa happily greeted her. She says the next day, working back at home, it was “right back to the old routine”.