It’s safe to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone we know. Often, when speaking of the past year, we tend to focus on the impact that it’s had on our fellow human beings. But it has also changed the lives of our four-legged friends. Whether you were already sharing your home with a furry companion or your enforced time at home led you to take the plunge into pet ownership, your animals have grown used to your constant presence at home. Now, as we move closer to a large-scale return to the office, we shouldn’t forget to consider the impact this upheaval could have on our pets’ lives.
We should especially take care with new pets, who have only known a life where you work from home and may have not been properly socialized due to COVID-19 restrictions. Or perhaps your pet already exhibits clingy and needy behavior around you. This could be a warning sign that your return to work will be a difficult adjustment for them. Animals who have spent time at shelters or those who have been rehomed more than once are at higher risk to struggle with separation anxiety.
Forewarned is forearmed
We’ve all heard the clichés about the best laid plans, but truly, to set yourself up for success, make a plan! Below, we laid out the basic framework of a return-to-work plan that could work well for you. Of course, you know your pet better than anyone else, so feel free to adjust as needed.
The most important aspect of this plan is to slowly change your schedule—a consistent routine helps your pet feel more secure, and if you focus on making small changes, it’ll help ease them into the upcoming separation.
- Begin waking earlier by small degrees, until you arrive at the time you’ll need to wake up to get to the office on time.
- Establish new feeding and exercise times that work for your new schedule.
- Physical and mental exercise are just as important for animals as they are for humans, so build it into your daily schedule.
- If your schedule allows, make sure to allow for exercise before you depart in the morning.
- A tired pet is more likely to remain calm; excess energy can increase anxiety and leave pets susceptible to boredom.
- Start to expand where you go when you walk with your dog to give them the mental stimulation of new sights, sounds, and smells.
- If you don’t already have one, create a safe space for your pet.
- Encourage them to spend time there while you’re still home.
- Leave them with a toy while you work elsewhere, with the door closed.
- Feed them their meals in this area to encourage their positive feelings for the space.
- Consider leaving a blanket or article of clothing that smells like you, so they can be comforted by your familiar smell.
- Try not to exhibit your own signs of anxiety and stress, as pets are liable to pick up on your emotions and feed off them.
- Desensitize them to your departure.
- Begin leaving the house, alone, for short periods of time, and then gradually increase the length of time you’re gone.
- Dress in your work clothes or carry your work bags with you when you go.
- Give them an interactive toy as part of your departure routine.
- Do NOT make a big deal about leaving. Stay calm.
- On your first day back in the office, help ease the separation by taking the following steps:
- Prepare for your departure the night before by packing your bags and having your keys ready.
- Distract your pet with the interactive toy(s) you gave them for your short practice runs.
- Make sure they have mental stimulation while you’re gone:
- Hide and seek games
- Video loops of animals running
- Access to a view of the outdoors
- Upon your return, don’t give them any attention until they calm down. Once they’re calm, greet them in a relaxed manner. Keeping their, and your, emotions on an even keel is very important.
A watchful eye
During these first few weeks of change, keep an eye out for symptoms of separation anxiety and stress. Symptoms of anxiety look different in dogs and cats, and can manifest in many ways, but some of the more common indicators are listed below:
- Panting or increased drooling
- Excessive barking when alone
- Destructive behaviors like chewing or scratching
- Bathroom accidents when alone (even in potty trained dogs)
- Attempts to escape from their crate or possibly even from your home itself
- Making a mess or spraying
- Changes in eating and/or sleeping patterns
- Aggressive behavior
- Excessive licking or grooming
- Destructive behavior like scratching
If your beloved animal starts to exhibit the above symptoms or any other unusual behavior, and nothing you do alleviates it, it may be time to consider alternate options. If it’s an option for you, doggie daycare can be wonderful for lots of canines, assuming the facility is reputable and following all COVID-19 precautions. Conversely, hiring a dog walker or cat sitter to spend time with your animal while you’re at work can be quite helpful. If your company has a bring your dog to work policy, that could help ease their stress, but trust your judgement on how your furry best friend would handle a new space (somewhat) filled with strangers. Lastly, some veterinarians will prescribe medication or suggest a behavior modification program, ideally one run by a reputable trainer.
As always, sharing your life with animals means being patient. Keep your expectations reasonable—this is a huge change to their life, as you can surely relate. Be willing to adjust as needed. Never punish them for their anxiety, as this will make them fearful and even more anxious. Trust that you know your pet, and even if it takes time, you’ll figure out the best course of action for everyone involved.
The bottom line
Whether you’re planning on returning to the office or are embracing your new four-legged co-workers, be sure to always keep them protected with pet insurance from Progressive.