Tips to help pets adjust to life after COVID

It’s back to school time for many Americans. For many others who were working from home during COVID, it’s back to work time, too.  

As for pets now used to the 24/7 presence of their entire families, that means back to long days alone waiting for their owners to come home again. 

That’s a big change from the last year and a half when kids and pets and parents got used to spending all day, every day together. Many owners are worried about how the change in routine is going to impact their pets.  

NEWStat  reached out to Margaret E. Gruen, DVM, MVPH, PhD, DACVB, assistant professor of behavioral medicine at NCSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, to find out what pet owners—and veterinarians—can do to help ease that impact. 

NEWStat: How did pets adapt to the new pandemic paradigm of forced togetherness? Did cats and dogs react differently? 

MG: It’s quite variable—some pets seemed to really be happy to have their owners at home more. We heard most about this for dogs, but it was also true of cats. However, for some pets the constant presence of people can be disruptive to their sleep, their access to preferred resting areas, and their options for quiet or alone time. I think it’s similar to how it was for many of us—some [togetherness] is great, a lot is . . . a lot. Because of the disruption to schools and work schedules, things were stressful and crowded for many of us, and that applies to our pets as well. Overall, I think pets benefitted from the increased social interactions that we had with them. 

NEWStat: How can veterinarians help their clients heading back to the office prepare their pets for the change in routine? 

MG: The best thing is to make sure it’s not an abrupt change. For example, if dogs are going to be kept in particular areas while owners are out, owners can begin to practice having their dog in those areas for periods during the day. Start small, leaving the dog with a favorite treat or toy, and be somewhere else in the house or leave for short periods. Then work up to longer periods of time away as the dog gets more used to the separation.  

Many dogs will adapt well, but all of us do better with changes that are gradual rather than abrupt (especially because we can’t easily explain to them what’s going on). It’s also good to leave at times that correspond to when you’ll leave for the office. Owners can go for a morning walk or coffee run while leaving their dog at home. Dogs do best with routine, so the sooner we can start preparing them for a new routine, the better. If owners are going to take their dog to a day care, they can begin taking their dog there at least once a week so that their dog can get used to this experience as well. 

NEWStat: What sorts of potentially negative behaviors might pet owners expect to see once they go back to work, and how can they help mitigate them?  

MG: Negative behaviors we could see often have to do with increased anxiety. Common signs associated with separation anxiety are vocalization, destructive behavior, or house soiling. However, we can also see negative behaviors because dogs get less exercise, or aren’t taken out [to eliminate] when they expect to be, so these need to be considered as well. We need to make sure our pets are acclimated to these [schedule] changes. The signs are often more obvious in dogs, but we need to be watching for signs of anxiety in cats, as well.  

NEWStat: Will pets adopted during the pandemic face different challenges than pets who were around before the pandemic?  

MG: Some pets adopted during the pandemic may not have ever learned to be alone in the house. For these dogs, it’s even more important to begin to leave them, and to practice independence exercises like resting in a room separate from their owners. New experiences that they weren’t socialized for can be more difficult for them. [If] there will be new people or places [like a dog walker or a day care in their lives], a gradual introduction of these is [especially] important.  

A high percentage of dogs who have separation anxiety actually spend a lot of time watching vigilantly [for their owners’ return] instead of sleeping, and that’s difficult to tell without a camera. Conversely, some dogs who are destructive when their owners are out [don’t necessarily] have separation anxiety and are actually [just] bored or frustrated and need more exercise or interactive toys.     

NEWStat: You did a sleep study on dogs last year. When people are depressed, they often sleep more. Pets sleep a lot anyway, so how can owners tell if something’s wrong?  

MG: We would look for changes in the amount or pattern of sleep. There’s no one thing to watch for, but a lack of interest in play or walks would be a concern.  

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