As many of us prepare to head back to work, there’s one family member who may not be anticipating the change. Pets have become used to having us around every day, available for walks and affection on demand. So how will they cope with a return to their old routine of spending days home alone, or at doggy day-care?
Research from insurers Petplan has found that more than half of the UK’s pets “aren’t ready” for lockdown to end, and 48 per cent of owners are thinking about preparing their pets for the transition. As pack animals, most dogs are happiest when the family is together, and rescues can be particularly vulnerable to separation anxiety. With 8.5 million pooches in UK households, that’s a lot of stressed pets.
Cats, however, may welcome the return to work – many will have found the enforced proximity of lockdown stressful, and are likely to become less anxious with more time to themselves. Although, if you have a very affectionate or nervous cat, they may respond to your absence by soiling, scratching furniture or hiding. If getting a companion cat is impossible, consider a calming plug-in product such as Feliway, which some vets recommend. Make sure they have a safe, clean sleeping area and litter tray, and that other cats can’t get in through their flap – often a source of major stress.
Animal charity Dog’s Trust recently referred to the pet problem as a ‘ticking time bomb’ and warned owners to pay attention now to avoid behavioural and emotional issues down the line. RSPCA clinical behaviourist Sarah Tapsell explains that identifying the problem is the first step. “Separation related issues are vastly underdiagnosed in our dogs. We may never know,” she says. “ It can be very useful to invest in a Wifi camera for home, so you can observe your dog while you are out.”
But bear in mind that they know not what they do. “All animals can suffer from frustration or fear,” Tapsell adds. “It is important to not tell them off or punish them if they are upset, even if you think what they are doing is naughty. They are doing it for a reason.”
Signs that a dog isn’t coping with your absence include incessant barking, howling, pacing, and wrecking the house – panting, trembling, destroying furniture, weeing (and worse) on the floor are all signs of stress. But short of jacking in our careers and staying in bed surrounded by poodles forever, how can we reassure our beloved hounds?
Dog behaviourist Nick Jones recommends introducing short periods of ‘alone time’ well before you return to work. Either shut your dog in a separate room – many feel insecure having the run of the house – or go out. “Leave the dog in its safe sleeping space, with a distracting, food-based toy,” he says. “Start with five minutes, then build up to ten and fifteen – and add on five minutes every other day. The key is to stretch the time gradually, so it’s not a sudden shock.”
If your pet had a sitter or walker pre-lockdown, it’s a good idea to reintroduce them for a short visit, too.
“But the dog shouldn’t be overly flooded with too much too soon,” Jones adds. “A gentle reintroduction, with one or two others at a time, is a very sensible way to help your pet adjust”.
And when you come home from work, don’t make a huge show of it – put your bag and keys away, then greet them.
“It helps if we don’t get pets worked up by making a fuss about leaving or returning,” agrees Carla Finzel, a Veterinary District Nurse. “There’s no harm in pretending we are going out to get them used to it, even if we’re just going round the corner,” she adds. “It all helps to normalise our absences.”
It’s also useful to minimise noise disturbances. “Some owners may leave the TV, talk radio or lights on. Leave your tablet playing chilled-out bird sounds or relaxing music for separation anxiety,” says Finzel. You can also close curtains, so they don’t spend all day staring out of the window, waiting for your return.
It’s a good idea to praise your pet when it’s calm, too, she adds. “Reward your dog when he is relaxed, so he associates treats with chilled-out behaviour.”
The most helpful thing you can do, though, is walk your dog before you go to work. A tired pet is much more able to relax than one full of pent-up energy, and if you also offer a walk, or a play session when you return, it will accept that you’re coming back and there’s something to look forward to.
“Set aside regular times to interact with your pets, ideally twice a day,” advises Finzel.
The most important thing, however, is not to pass your worry on to your dog, no matter how much you’ll miss your precious furry baby.
“But I’d encourage people not to panic,” says Nick Jones. “Dogs are much more resilient than we give them credit for.”