The pandemic saw a huge spike in the number of pet adoptions across the country, a large number of which were from local animal shelters. According to Shelter Animals Count, a database tracking hundreds of rescue organizations, 2020 saw nearly 26,000 more pet adoptions than in 2019, as reported by the Washington Post. And the group's COVID-19 Impact Report noted a 34 percent increase in national pet adoptions from April 2019 to April 2020.
That was great news for pet lovers. Even better news? Despite click-bait headlines insinuating that many of these new owners were returning their pets in droves post-COVID, welfare groups have confirmed that most are happily keeping their furry friends for the long haul.
But here's what's not the best news: As companies around the world begin opening up in the fall, bringing millions of workers back to the office and leaving animals at home more frequently and for longer durations than they're used to, dogs (cats, of course, could care less) will be left to face some inevitable separation anxiety.
"We are already seeing a surge of separation anxiety in my practice," Dr. Rachel Malamed, a doctor of veterinary medicine and a veterinary behaviorist in Los Angeles, tells Yahoo Life.
"Dogs that were adopted during the pandemic and were never accustomed to the lifestyle of being away from their owners regularly may be more likely to exhibit signs of anxiety," she says. "As well, some dogs that were previously treated for separation anxiety and had improved are now regressing with this sudden change in routine."
What is separation anxiety?
"Separation anxiety may go unnoticed if the signs are not obvious, and there are no neighboring complaints," explains Malamed.
The ASPCA describes separation anxiety as dogs reacting to separation from their people by becoming extremely anxious or showing distress behaviors. Sometimes such behaviors can simply indicate that a pet needs to be better trained. It’s all about spotting the difference. Here's how:
A dog grows anxious as the owner prepares to leave. This is a sign of separation anxiety. Common signs are drooling, pacing, whimpering and, in some cases, purposely standing in front of the door (and not in an “I need to go potty” kind of way).
Barking and howling. Almost immediately after an owner leaves, a dog dealing with separation anxiety may start barking or howling. These symptoms do not seem to be triggered by anything besides being left alone.
Dangerous escape attempts. These incidents can sometimes cause injuries such as broken teeth, cut or scraped paws and damaged nails — not to mention severe damage to an owner’s home from the biting and scratching. If this does not happen when an owner is present, it is likely a sign of separation anxiety.
Urinating and defecating. If this happens routinely when an owner is away and not while they’re home, it’s typically a sign of separation anxiety.
Destruction. When a human comes home to chewing, digging or other damage to their furniture — and it only seems to happen when the owner is away — it’s a red flag the pet is dealing with anxiety.
How are pet owners coping?
Nicole Jacobson, a fundraiser at a private college in Portland, Maine, tells Yahoo Life that her dog, Chili, whom she adopted at 8 weeks old, is beginning to show signs of separation anxiety as she’s been going back into the office a few days a week.
“It’s to the point where if I get up and go to the bathroom, he’s looking for me,” Jacobson explains. “Right now we’re working up to him being okay with being alone, like, practicing with me stepping outside and trying to build time on that. But it’s tough.”
Still, while Jacobson has found some success sending Chili to doggy daycare on the days she’s working, there is still concern about being away for days at a time once travel starts to pick up— and it’s not just Chili who’s feeling the impacts.
“I’m trying to get him comfortable at the daycare facility," Jacobson adds. "I had him do one overnight to practice building up that comfortability. And then I would say, ‘I just don't want him to be anxious’ and I feel like I missed him during the day."
Abby Bays, an executive assistant at Simmons University Institute for Inclusive Leadership, tells Yahoo Life that her dog, Bode, 4, never showed symptoms of separation anxiety before lockdown.
"He was a very independent pup before the pandemic," says Bays, who hired a daily dog walker for Bode before her offices shut down.
Due to COVID safety concerns, she's been limiting contact with outside dog walkers. Thankfully, her office allows Bode to visit when she's working, and although she's going back "two to three times a week," she's concerned their attachment isn't helping.
"I can bring him but that doesn't help with the problem," she says, adding that the only time Bode barks, "besides when he sees a squirrel," is when she leaves. But she's found interesting ways to "cue" her exit strategy.
"I put on Downton Abbey for him every time I leave," she quips. "That's when he knows, 'Oh, Downton Abbey is on, mom's leaving.'"
Katy Daly, co-owner of Renegade's Pub in Boston, says her rescue dog Delilah, 5, had an almost territorial response to the lockdown.
"At the beginning of pandemic, I was home all the time and I think for her she was like, 'Why the f—k are you here all the time?" Daly tells Yahoo Life. "I first had to train her to realize that I'm not going to be home 24 hours a day. And then when I was home all the time because of the pandemic, she was like, 'Well, this is my space when you're not here. Why are you on my couch?'"
What can pet owners do to help ease separation anxiety?
The goal is always to help your pet realize that being left alone is not only tolerable, but can also be enjoyable. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
As Malamed explains, it begins with easy-to-do exercises, including the following:
Independence exercises. Get your dog used to staying on a dog bed or other comfortable spot as you move away, increasing duration and distance incrementally while ensuring you stay below threshold for any signs of stress.
Create positive associations with gradual departures. Provide a high value, long lasting treat for when your pet does these exercises so that they can begin to associate your distance with good things — whether a tasty treat or, sure, Downton Abbey. You could practice walking to the door and coming back while your dog is still relaxed and enjoying the treat, gradually moving towards departures for very short periods of time. As they learn to associate you leaving with positivity (and feel safe because you return before your dog shows even subtle signs of stress), you can start to increase the time slowly and at a rate that is comfortable for them.
Short outings. Try to run short errands out to your mailbox, etc. leaving your dog with a long lasting treat or food-dispensing toy.
Desensitization to departure cues. Moves like picking up your keys or putting on your shoes are common cues that become predictors that you are leaving, and often this is when dogs start to become stressed. Go through your normal leaving routine and present these “cues” when you don’t actually have to go anywhere.
Try not to make a big deal of your arrivals and departures. Ensure that the emotional highs and lows of your coming and going are not exaggerated by exuberant hellos and goodbyes. When you come home, wait until your dog has chilled out and then greet him calmly.
Ask for commands before giving attention. This prevents reinforcement of attention seeking behaviors when attention is given on demand. Try to reward with attention when your pet is not actively seeking your attention and reward independence in the home.
Create a physically safe space. It is best to find alternatives to leaving your dog alone if possible (e.g. doggy daycare, bringing him to work or on errands, staying with a pet sitter/friend) while you are still working on the problem, as it's important to avoid a stress response. If this is not possible, leave your dog in an area where they are most comfortable and least likely to hurt themselves. Note that although some dogs may be happiest in crates when owners are home or not home, for other dogs, confinement when alone can often exacerbate stress. They may injure themselves or fracture teeth trying to escape the crate.
What are responses to avoid?
"Anxious behaviors are not the result of disobedience or spite. They are distress responses," notes the ASPCA.
Separation anxiety is a panic disorder that results when the pet is alone or away from a particular attachment figure, so when it comes to disciplining your pet, the most important thing is to not send mixed messages.
"Do not punish your dog if you come home to find destruction, house soiling or other unwanted behaviors," explains Malamed. "Punishment can cause your pet to be more anxious while diminishing the trusting human-animal bond."
Remember," she adds, "your dog is not performing these behaviors out of 'spite' but rather from a state of panic i.e. 'fight or flight.' These behaviors stem from a physiologic response to stress that they cannot control. As well, punishing your dog upon arriving home will not be associated with the behavioral acts that occurred minutes to hours earlier when you were not home."
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