For more than a year, Michelle Struba worked from home in Wrentham with her three dogs by her side. But then she learned she would need to return to her office in April and started to worry. “My dogs are all rescues, so I was concerned that they were going to have separation anxiety and think I abandoned them,” Struba says. She was not alone: A recent survey of 500 pet owners by MSPCA-Angell in Jamaica Plain found that 25 percent feared pets would suffer from separation anxiety when their humans left.
Struba and her husband prepared early and lined up support — in other words, they followed some of the five steps outlined below — and are relieved that the entire family is making a smooth transition. “There’s a lot of juggling of everyone’s schedules, and that includes dog walkers some days and doggie day care other days,” Struba says. “I’m happy to say that so far it’s working really well.”
1. Start preparing early
“Don’t wait until you are going back to the office to learn if there’s going to be a problem,” says Dr. Terri Bright, director of behavior service at MSPCA-Angell. It’s ideal to start looking for signs of anxiety weeks ahead of time, including by leaving your pet alone for at least 30 minutes and peeking in (which is easy with an in-home camera or video chat app). If it goes well, extend the time away in two-hour increments.
2. Recognize signs of stress
Some signs to look out for include shaking, drooling, extreme vocalization, urinating, and defecating inside (for cats, outside of the litter box), as well as repeated attempts to escape through windows and doors. “These are real serious things that people need to see a behaviorist about,” Bright says. “And they should talk about it with their vet because if their pet needs medication to help cope with separation anxiety, it could take four to six weeks for the medication to work.”
3. Stick to a routine
To minimize pets’ stress, it’s important to remember that they like — and need — routine, says Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil, head of the behavior service at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University. “The way they make sense of their world is by the way their world becomes predictable to them.” So even if pets’ humans aren’t able to walk them midday any longer, they still need that walk. And if social interaction at dog parks was part of their daily schedule, then Borns-Weil suggests considering doggie day care. Just be sure to vet the companies well, including asking about training and staff-to-pet ratio. “There is currently no legislation, no certification, no regulation of the industry,” she says. “I like places that have streaming video, because nothing makes things run smoothly like transparency.”
4. Tire your pet out
It is more important than ever to ensure that furry family members get plenty of physical and mental exercise. “An exercised dog is a peaceful dog,” says Jenni Coes, a certified dog trainer who owns Peaceful Paws Pet Care and Pet Therapy in Plainville. “Exercise helps dogs relax so they don’t worry as much about you being gone.” Coes has seen an uptick in clients opting for hourlong group hikes for their pets — sometimes twice a day — because pets get exercise and socialization. They should also have plenty of at-home activities, such as interactive puzzle toys, chews, and food foraging mats.
5. Be patient
Borns-Weil emphasizes it’s important to remember that our pets provided comfort and companionship during the pandemic, and now it’s time for us to be there for them. “We’re going to go back to life as normal, but remember that the pandemic was their normal,” she says. “We’re going to turn their world upside down and they’re going to need us to be patient and to stretch in terms of time — and stretch in terms of finances — to be able to meet their needs during the transition.”
Juliet Pennington is a frequent contributor to the Globe. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.