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Dear Maxine: Worried in Wisconsin

It’s time for another installment of Dear Maxine, where our canine, feline, feathered, and occasionally human friends write in to ask questions about health, lifestyle, toys, or just about anything. This week’s question comes from Worried in Wisconsin, who needs some help figuring out how to handle their humans going back to the office.

Dear Maxine,

My mom and dad have been home almost constantly for the last year due to Covid. They were able to work from home, and I have enjoyed the extra time they have been able to spend with me. But my parents have been talking about going back to work and I am worried about being alone for so much of the day, and mom and dad are worried about how I will react when this happens. Please help!

Worried in Wisconsin

Dear Worried,

If there’s a silver lining to the Covid pandemic, maybe it’s been more time with our humans. But as more people head back to work outside the home, experts say they should keep an eye out for behavioral changes in us cats and dogs, now that we are accustomed to having our people with us all of the time.

While most vets and pet behavior experts are not expecting a ‘riot of mass proportions,” many are saying we can expect a large number of pets that experience separation anxiety. Pets with the separation anxiety look at their owners' absence as dangerous, and the emotional distress produces behavior that’s destructive to the home or themselves. They literally panic. While dogs are more likely to experience separation anxiety, cats will likely experience some anxiety or behavioral changes, but to a lesser degree.

People who adopted new dogs during the pandemic might be about to see a new side of their pet. “They don’t know anything else,” experts say. “They think we spend all our time at home, so it may be more challenging with them.”

While dogs are more likely to have issues when their people leave the home, cats may have issues as well. Cats are generally more territorial less social in nature. That is why cats were more likely to act weird at the start of the pandemic when schools and offices closed. Our constant presence significantly altered that territory. But now we’re about to alter it again. Cats also love a routine and might be used to one you can’t maintain from outside the house.

What behaviors can human’s look for if their pet is going through separation anxiety?

Signs of separation anxiety in dogs include barking, howling, whining, scratching at doors and windows, chewing on the door, drooling, and panting. A pet camera can help you know what’s going on when you’re not home. Other signs including changes in potty and eating habits.

Signs a cat is experiencing separation anxiety include excessive vocalization (lots of meowing), over grooming to the point of licking off fur into bald patches, destructive behavior and urinating on items that smell like their favorite human.

So, what can our humans do, to prepare us for their return to work? Here are a few things that can help us adapt, according to veterinarians and pet experts:

  1. Start leaving us alone for a few hours at a time. If you're planning a return to the office, Dr. Douglas Kratt, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, recommends you start by leaving us pets for two or three hours at a time daily, so we aren't caught off guard when you're gone for eight or more hours a day.

  2. Dr. Dana Varble, chief veterinary officer for the North American Veterinary Community, suggests pet owners keep some of the habits formed during the pandemic, such as taking their dogs for a walk during their lunch breaks.

  3. Consider a pet sitter. If your new normal doesn't include time for that, Dr. Varble says it may be time to hire someone or re-hire the dog walker or pet sitter you had before the pandemic, which can give your pet some familiarity.

  4. For cats, experts suggest building a cat’s confidence by making time for play every day with a wand toy (sort of like a kitty fishing pole with a mouse or feathers on the end of the line). Just 10 minutes while watching TV can do the trick. If you give them a chance to feel like a predator, you are going to reduce their stress and build their confidence and build their bond with you.

  5. Another idea for helping your cat adapt once you go back to work, is to leave some distractions around. Ingrid Johnson, certified cat behavior consultant at Fundamentally Feline, suggests cat owners find fun distractions for their cats while they're gone, such as leaving cat videos or easy listening music on.

  6. In severe cases of separation anxiety, such as a dog causing a lot of destruction or harming himself, vets suggest checking with a veterinarian about potentially using calming medication or supplements. They also advise seeking help from certified separation anxiety trainers, who typically offer remote consults.

Finally, we must realize that readjustment times will vary. Pets will need about four weeks to adjust to a new routine, but different animals are more adaptable than others. Cats, for example, may need longer and may show signs of stress for up to six months. Although they're a lot more independent, they really thrive on routine.

The main thing we can do now is to help pets remember what it’s like to be left alone by taking a short walk or drive without them. At home, encourage them to enjoy independent activities, like working on a food puzzle or chew toy. You can even hide treats in cardboard boxes around the house for them to find.

I hope that that helps with your concerns, Wisconsin! We must remember that being away from us will be hard for our humans too, and we must give them time to adapt when they leave us and give them lots of attention, kisses, and hugs when they are home. If we want to bring them a special treat like a snake or an old shoe we find in the backyard, it just may brighten their day and remind them that we are always thinking of them, even when we are not together.

That’s all for now, until next time,

Maxine (& Brenda Storms)

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