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Gone-Away Blues: Help Pets Adjust to Family Absences

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No one sent an email to pets explaining, “Everything is about to change; there’s a pandemic and your people with be home 24/7.” Some pets took a while to adjust to their new normal, while dogs who may have been walked more often and cats who could sit in laps more often relished this new life from day one. Millions of pets adopted during the pandemic know only “their normal,” which is that kids and parents are home all the time.

As life takes another twist, children are off to school, perhaps even headed off to college, and some parents are departing for the office again. Again, pets received no advance warning that their life was going to change, and they may not be prepared for it. While some of them will undoubtedly go with the flow, cats, in particular, are famously finicky about change. This sort of change can be upsetting to dogs as well.

The following tips can help pets to adjust to family members going back to school and to the workplace:

Test the waters: If your pets are currently accustomed to at least of some of the family being around 24/7, go away and see what happens. At first, depart for only five minutes. Drop some irresistible treats and see if your pet scarfs them up. What you’re looking for are signs of separation distress. Aside from seeing if the treats were scarfed down, spy on your pets.

Set up a pet cam: Cameras are now pretty inexpensive. If you purchase only one camera, point it at the door from which you depart. Signs of separation anxiety in dogs include barking, whining, and destructive behavior – such as ripping apart pillows. Dogs may also hypersalivate (drool a lot) or pace at the door, and constantly watch out a window. Cats can also suffer from separation distress. They may vocalize, hide, or take out their frustrations on other pets. Cats may have accidents outside their box, and dogs may lose housetraining.

Separation anxiety needs to be diagnosed by a veterinary professional. Watching the video you provide can help them determine whether your pet is playing or stressed. For example, a dog ripping apart a pillow may not be anxious but actually having fun, or perhaps the pup never learned to be home alone or does not have enough interesting things to do when you’re away.

How to help: A myriad of nutritional supplements and nutraceuticals can help dogs and cats with separation anxiety. Other aids include behavior modification and medication. Typically, ignoring the problem can cause it to worsen over time.

Set up a routine: Our pets thrive on routine, so set the stage for a new routine – if possible – before the new schedule kicks in. And practice that new schedule.

Exercise and play: Activity can also be an effective stress buster. But while appropriate exercise is always a good idea, for pets with true separation anxiety, exercise is not the solution. You’ll simply have a tired animal who remains anxious.

For dogs and cats, play is a great stress buster and it further cements the human-animal bond. A least once a day, use an interactive toy (such a fishing pole-type toy with feathers or fabric) and entice your kitty. Most cats don’t require or desire long play sessions (except for energetic kittens). Watch a sitcom, taking out the cat toy during commercial breaks. That will add up to nearly 10 minutes of playtime for about three minutes at a time. That provides structure and consistency and helps set a playtime routine you’re likely to achieve. 

Boredom busters: Hiring a responsible dog walker can help to break up your pet’s day, not to mention providing relief for the bladder (especially for small or geriatric dogs). 

In your absence, cats may enjoy a motion-detecting battery-operated toy that provides a good game of chase. Also, some camera systems allow you to remotely remind your pet, “I love you,” and even dispense treats from a distance.

You can also seek out some of the myriad food puzzles that pets can work at to receive treats; think of them as pet occupational therapy. Not only are food puzzles a sort of natural stress reliever, they also provide a welcome distraction. After the snacks, pets may enjoy a snooze. Hide treats around the house so pets can use their senses to search them out. To make it more challenging, stuff treats inside a toy so pets have to figure out how to get at them. (This works best in single-pet households, so that one pet doesn’t hog all the treats or they don’t fight over the toy.) After playing hide and seek and then taking a nap, the next thing they know, the kids are arriving home from school or you are back from work, and all’s right with their world again.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Steve Dale, CABC (certified animal behavior consultant) has written and contributed to many books about pets; hosts three radio shows; contributes to Veterinary Practice News, CATSTER and others; is on the Board of Directors of the Human Animal Bond Association and Winn Feline Foundation, and is chief correspondent for Fear Free Happy Homes. He speaks at conferences worldwide. His blog: www.stevedale.tv

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