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It's a story many pet owners are now familiar with: You've been home for months, following orders to social distance and spending more time with dogs, cats and other non-human companions. Then, the day comes to go back to the office, or the chance to escape for a vacation.
Your pet stares back at you as you leave, wondering when or if you'll ever return again. To some animals, it might feel like the end of the world.
Pups and feline friends have perhaps become more codependent amid owners staying home virtually all the time, and leaving the house again can take a toll on them. Take it from Kim Bissing, owner of Beyond The Leash Dog Training.
"We've seen about 15 separation anxiety cases just in two weeks. It's getting worse because people are starting to pick up and going back to work," she said. "We have had about 20 new puppy owners in our six-week class and about 17 are already exhibiting some signs of undersocialization."
It might seem tempting to worry about your pet's wellbeing on top of the woes of living through a global pandemic. But fret not, these pet experts are here to help.
Let's say you've just spent the past four months largely staying at home, then it finally comes time to go back into the office or leave for a weeklong vacation. That can take a serious toll on dogs, Bissing says.
"If you drastically just go back to work one day, dogs are left with no explanation in their minds," she said. "You can't just explain to them that, 'You're going to be fine, I'll be back home.' Communicating to a dog that, 'Hey, sorry I was home for three months and now I'm leaving you,' that takes a lot of work."
While most canines have a good system for self-soothing, that can be disrupted when their daily circumstances are changed, such as their owner leaving for long periods again.
"Watch if you start to do things like grab your keys or head towards the door and your dog starts pacing, panting, stress yawning, if they can't settle down easily when you're not right there," Bissing said. "Dogs should be able to settle down within a few minutes of somebody leaving. If they're up pacing for 30 minutes, that's stress, that's anxiety. That's something that, if it's not treated, gets worse over time."
More serious separation anxiety behaviors can involve the dog trying to break through a door or their kennel to get to their owner.
Bissing said that, in addition, pooches have a sensitive "sixth sense" that brings them down when owners are feeling stressed or depressed, especially when dogs feel powerless to help their humans.
"If humans are stressed out and mentally drained, it really takes a way bigger toll on the dogs than we think it does," she said. "What we're going through is really hard, but it is hard on them too. Just be really aware of your dog's emotions."
One way to help reduce separation anxiety issues is by slowly desensitizing a dog to the idea that you're leaving the house again.
"Leave for short periods, maybe put them in a kennel for quiet time on their own, keeping white noise on because they need that distraction," Bissing said. "Leave the house at least one or two hours a day, so the dog has to remember those coping skills."
For longer trips, the dog trainer suggested taking canines to a boarding and training program. She said that a few weeks of socialization and behavior modification, with a training class or at home, can help quell anxious tendencies and help a pooch find more peace of mind.
Most people know someone who spent their time in quarantine enjoying the company of a new puppy in their home. After all, what better time to adopt than while spending countless hours and days around the house?
Bissing said that due to closures and social distancing measures, a lot of these puppies are now undersocialized.
"Normally you would take a puppy out to dinner, to the dog park or to a friend's house," she said. "If no one is coming to your house and you're not going anywhere, they're really skittish and head shy toward new strangers ... they're really reactive toward anybody but their family members."
If puppies are undersocialized, it's not too late for them to develop good behaviors and feel more comfortable around new people.
"We offer a socialization day where owners can drop off the puppy – they get to play with other dogs and humans. It's kind of like a puppy kindergarten," Bissing said, adding that crate training can help provide a safe and positive environment for puppies, and dog park visits can provide safe socializing opportunities.
She said that during these times, it's especially important to help new dog owners, especially as she's seeing more relinquishments.
"It is really sad to watch a good puppy have to come into a situation that nobody has control over," Bissing said. "We're happy that we're here to help and that we're knowledgable enough to assist."
In some cases, feline friends will experience a certain degree of separation anxiety when their humans leave the house more. But their problem may also be just the opposite.
"From my practice standpoint, I'm still seeing more of the problems that happened when lockdown started – that crowding of territory and changes in operating because of that change and our general stress level," said Jackson Galaxy, the cat behavior and wellness expert seen in "My Cat From Hell." "That speaks to what drives cats crazier –really drastic changes to the everyday flow."
Cats are concerned most with territory and are generally used to enjoying their own space during the day when owners are away. That domain went away with quarantine.
While felines don't experience the same separation anxiety that dogs do, they may still act out in ways that are related to a change in their routine or environment. (Personally, I returned from a weeklong trip to find one cat hiding not under, but inside the couch.)
"There's destruction of furniture, there's more hiding and less social behavior when you are home. There's litter box issues that crop up. They're behaviors that make you scratch your head," Galaxy said. "Cats are fighting, they're less tolerant of petting. They're sleeping in weird places."
Similar to what Bissing suggested for dogs, Galaxy said that easing cats back into a routine can help lessen their stress.
"Instead of suddenly leaving for 10 hours a day again, start by going through your old morning routine. Leave the house for 20 minutes, go take a walk. Leave the house for an hour and come back," he said. "Do it in ways where they just get used to you being gone again for a short amount of time before you completely leave."
As for other ways to help cats cope, Galaxy advised giving cats puzzle toys to amuse themselves, setting up "cat TV" with a bird feeder outside the window and enjoying play therapy with them upon returning to the house.
He also likes to look at the positive side of what's shaping up to be a not-so-great year.
"I think that we're still living in a moment of opportunity to broaden the relationship with our cats and with our dogs," Galaxy said. "What could be better for our cats? What part of our routine? Why aren't we playing with our cats more? Why aren't we thinking about enriching their environment? ... People care and see their pets not just as property, but as family members."