Lockdown, for many, has brought mixed emotions. Whilst some have carried on work as normal, others have had more chance to enjoy staying at home a bit more. But as more of us return to work and offices, the next few weeks may prove a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for our pets.
Over the past year your pet might have become accustomed to having you around more. The sudden return to work will mean a wave of changes all at once for your pet; not being able to come and go as they please, not enjoying those extra treats throughout the day, a change in how often they can use the toilet, and one of the biggest, not being able to see you. This completely altered routine can cause significant stress.
But there are things you can do to make it easier for your pet – keep reading for our top tips!
Separation anxiety: what it is, and how to tell if your pet is struggling
Common signs of separation anxiety in dogs include…
- Howling or barking;
- Chewing, digging or destruction;
- Throwing up.
Common signs of separation anxiety in cats include…
- Meowing, crying or yowling;
- Urinating outside of the litterbox;
- Excessive self-grooming;
- Destructive behaviour (for instance, scratching or biting).
What can you do?
Because of the sheer number of changes involved in the return to work, the sooner you can start taking the following steps the better.
1 – Getting into a new routine
One of the first things that might come as a bit of a shock to both you and your pet is the change of routine. If you’ve been relishing those extra few minutes sleep in the morning, and working a little later into the night, then it might not be just your pet who struggles with the return of the early morning get-out-of-the-door routine.
To help address this, start getting back into a routine now whilst you’re still at home. Waking up a bit earlier and going for a morning walk will help both you and your pet get into the habit of getting up earlier and feeling more refreshed when the time comes to return to the workplace. Even if you have a cat or kitten, getting up and going for a short walk by yourself will help them get used to you leaving the house early in the morning.
2 – Start small
If you have gotten a new puppy or kitten over lockdown, then the chances are there has always been somebody home with them up until this point. A sudden absence of everyone from the house, even for a period as small as half an hour, can be a source of stress for your pet.
It’s important that you begin building up your pet’s confidence by taking small steps and gradually increasing this over time. Start off by finding (or creating) a time when everybody but yourself is out of the house. Now calmly go to the door and go through your normal routine (get your shoes on, if you have a house alarm set it up – just make sure you switch off the rooms your pet will be staying in – etc) and leave the house and garden. Wait outside for a few minutes – you can always walk around the outside of the house or to the corner shop – and then come back in. Give your pet lots of attention and treats – which will positively reinforce their good behaviour. Then, wait a few minutes, before going through the process again.
The idea behind this is getting your pet used to you being out of the house, safe in the knowledge that you will come back to them. Separation anxiety often arises when pets feel abandoned or they can’t get to you. Also, particularly if you have young animals, you need to take great care to ensure that your pet’s first experience of being left alone is a good one – the first time your puppy or kitten experiences something will have a significant impact on how they experience that thing in the future. For example, if the first time your pet is left home alone they are scared and panicked, then they will remember this experience as a bad one every time they are left home alone in the future – and it can be really difficult to change their mind. Because of this, it’s really important that you get this step right to help put your pet’s mind completely at ease.
You might think that, because you have an older pet who has experienced being home alone for long periods in the past, your return to work won’t make much of a difference so this step can be avoided. We’d suggest otherwise. Whilst your pet may have grown used to your absence in the past, it may be the case that they have gone through an extended period of having someone in the house with them at all times which can alter the way they feel about being left alone.
Over time you’ll be able to increase the amount of time you leave your pet to their own devices – from five minutes to ten, to half an hour and an hour, etc. Because you’re building this time up slowly, it will really help reassure your pet that no matter how long you are gone you will come back.
Q: Should I give my puppy a bone when I leave the house to give them something to do?
A: As a general rule, we’d say no – particularly with younger puppies. Leaving your puppy unattended with a bone or other hard treat like an antler can be a serious choking hazard that could put their life in danger – particularly if you’re not home for long periods. Instead, you could consider trying a softer treat just before you leave the door (like a dog biscuit), or giving them a toy to keep them occupied – like a stuffed Kong or Grrrelli.
3 – Try a calming diffuser or atomiser
This is a really useful tool at any stage of your pet’s life and training. A happy, relaxed pet is more likely to learn new information quickly than a stressed and upset one – so this can be a great investment regardless of how old or well-trained your pet is.
If you’ve noticed your pet has been getting stressed when you’ve attempted either stage one or stage two, then a diffuser can be a really great investment to help calm your pet down and put them at ease. If your pet’s anxiety is really bad, you could also consider adding a couple of drops of valerian compound into their water leading up to you leaving the house – which will help relax your pet and reduce tension. In extreme cases, CBD oil could also be considered.
4 – Leave the radio or TV on
When you are at home, your pet has a constant source of stimulation and noises going on in the background. Whether it’s the sound of the washing machine running, the tv, typing or handwriting, etc – there’s always something going on. When you’re not home, though, all of that goes away and leaves your pet alone in an echoy home, with only the sound of their own paws clicking against the laminate to keep them company.
By leaving the radio on, you’re creating a source of stimulus for your pet. Don’t leave it on too loud, just loud enough for a bit of background noise during the day that can help your pet focus on something.
5 – Be patient!
It can be easy to become upset and flustered if your pet becomes stressed and destructive – urinating in the house, scratching, chewing and howling/crying are all signs that your pet is distressed. It’s important not to shout at your pet if this is the case, you need to try and correct their behaviour by addressing the source of the problem: the fear that they have been abandoned.
If your pet is struggling, it may be worthwhile speaking to a behaviouralist to see if they are able to help. Other options you could consider are leaving your pet at daycare, paying a dogwalker or pet-sitter to come visit your pet during the day, or leaving your pet with a relative.
Crate training is another idea which some owners find helpful. By creating a safe “den” for your pet, you can provide a safe place for them where they can go when they get stressed and upset – but it’s not wise to leave your pet in a crate for extended periods. If you’re not sure where to start, get in touch – we’ll be posting an article soon about this topic.