Anne Bernadette Gaba long wanted to be a dog parent. But as she was always out of town for her previous job as a television producer, she knew that taking care of a dog would be hard not just for her but also for the four-legged pet.
So when the pandemic hit and lockdowns in Manila started in March 2020, Gaba, just like millions of employees around the world, was forced to work from home. This, she thought, was the perfect time to finally pursue her dog-mom dreams.
She rehomed the Pomeranian puppy, Seamus, in December 2020. Gaba's mother, meanwhile, saw how happy Seamus made Gaba so she also got herself her own Pomeranian, Muffin, just a few weeks later.
As they were locked at home, Gaba and her mother had a tight-knit bond with their two Pomeranian puppies. "During Seamus's first few months, I would sleep in the living room with him because my mother would not allow me to bring Seamus into my bedroom," recalled Gaba. "We were so close. Even though I was uncomfortable sleeping in the living room, I still chose to sleep there because Seamus was there."
Eventually, Seamus and Muffin had more canine companions at home; Gaba bought two French Bulldogs in early 2021, Rhys and Brutus, which she co-owns with her boyfriend.
"Basically, they are not 'pets' but they are really my babies," she said. "I give them what they need. I work every day so that I can have money to buy their food, vitamins, medicines, and emergency veterinarian appointments."
As the majority of the national and global workforce is already being forced to return to the office, Gaba, who lives in Batangas City but works as a government employee in Manila, knows that the day of reckoning has already come. "When I learned that I needed to return to the office already, I honestly cried so hard because I knew it would take a huge adjustment for the dogs, especially for Seamus because he was the clingiest," she shared.
She had all the reasons to worry; most if not all of the "pandemic pets" – the pets who were born and raised during the pandemic – have never known how it is like to be left alone all day. After all, they lived with their humans at home for more than two years (or around 14 years in the dog and cat world). While they did not really bond 24/7 as their humans still had to sit at the table with their laptops on, still, these dogs and cats have grown accustomed to having their humans around.
And now, dog and cat parents are faced with the dilemma of having to return to the office on a regular basis, having to leave Bantay and Muning alone at home.
Such as in the case of Stephanie, an executive assistant in a consulting firm in Manila and a cat mom to Taro and Hiro, both of whom are Scottish Fold cats that she rehomed during the pandemic. Recently, her company was among those that were asked by the Philippine Economic Zone Authority to return their operations back on-site already.
"I worried about their diet. Taro and Hiro have different diets; they prefer different kinds of food and their nutritional requirements are different from each other since one is already an adult cat while the other is still a kitten," she said. Taro is currently two years old while Hiro is nine months old. "Every time we would leave them alone, we have to come up with a schedule to pre-make their meals to serve for the day."
While her department is currently not yet required to work on-site as the RTO scheme in most workplaces is done in phases, Stephanie's worries about the day that she would be notified of an ultimate RTO order still linger. How would Taro and Hiro adapt when they have been living with Stephanie at home nearly 24/7 all their life?
"Taro and Hiro seem to be very independent when we leave them. But whenever we arrive home from heading outside, we usually catch them waiting by the door like they can predict our arrival," she shared. "Taro is never the affectionate type, but we noticed he becomes extra sweet when we get home. He would rub himself against our leg, rub his head against our face, and would meow to get our attention."
While Stephanie always attends to her cats’ needs, she also recognizes behavior changes when she sees one. She understands perfectly well that Taro, Hiro, and every other pet are prone to different conditions when faced with major lifestyle changes.
‘Separation anxiety can kill pets’
Dog behavior expert Lestre Zapanta, who also goes by the name the Pinoy Dog Whisperer, a dog behavior expert with 15 years of experience analyzing canine behavior, told Yahoo Philippines that the pandemic had its pros and cons when it comes to pet ownership. On the good side, many animal shelters had their rescue canines and felines adopted and rehomed because the interest in pet ownership became high during that time. But on the bad side, many of these new pet owners do not have the determination to deal with behavior issues of animals.
For starters, Zapanta said that pet owners must understand that dogs and cats are creatures of habit; they follow certain habits and routines every day so that they would have a sense of a job or a purpose.
Zapanta shared that during the onset of the pandemic, he encountered a lot of dogs and cats who displayed symptoms of anxiety and hyperactivity brought about by the major lifestyle changes.
"Everything changed that time, right? So the pets were like, 'Okay, my parent is now always at home. I am not used to this. How will I adapt to the new routine?'", recalled Zapanta.
"Now that most of us are already returning to the office, most pet owners do not consider that this would, again, cause extreme adjustments to their pets," he added in a mix of English and Filipino. "Your pets are probably telling you, 'I got used to being with you for a couple of years and suddenly you are going away. So what is going to happen to our routine?'"
Let us be fair to [our pets]. If they release our stress, then we should also help them in releasing their stress.Lestre Zapanta, The Filipino Dog Whisperer
Gaba's Pomeranian, Seamus, displayed behavior changes during Gaba's first few weeks of returning to the office. She shared, "My mom noticed that Seamus would just hide under the couch or the table, he would not finish his meals, e would poop more than necessary, sometimes he would also vomit, and occasionally he also scratched and bit some furniture.” Gaba’s mother and grandmother would give Seamus and their other dogs regular playtime, just so they would get distracted from displaying unwanted behavior.
Recently, Zapanta shared that he has seen an increase in inquiries from pet owners coming to him for help. "The numbers doubled, actually, and most of these are pet owners who are already returning to the office without having addressed their pets' situations." Many pets who are left alone without proper adjustments and training with their humans can develop separation anxiety.
"Separation anxiety can kill pets," noted Zapanta. According to him, many pet owners do not realize that animals do not have a sense of a "house" but they have a sense of territory. So for them, their human house is just a big cage. If an anxious pet is left in that "big cage," they would always try to find a way to get out of that big cage; they would chew off the metal, wood, or plastic. Eventually, tiny pieces of these materials can cause bleeding in their teeth and can go straight into their intestines and die from them.
This is why it is very important to notice signs of anxiety as early as possible. One of the signs that a dog or a cat is having anxiety is incessantly biting or chewing off their paws or tails.
"Usually, the owners would just say, 'Oh, maybe my dog or my cat has mites or any other medical condition.' But when they take the pet to the vet, they would be told that there is no problem," said Zapanta. "What these pet owners do not understand is that these signs are actually symptoms of an underlying behavior issue already, which is different."
Pet owners must step up in supporting their pets in going through major lifestyle changes, now that they are already returning to the office and leaving their pets behind.
"When we come home, the dogs and the cats serve as our stress relievers, right? The question now is: What is the stress reliever for the dogs and the cats?", asked Zapanta. "So let us be fair to them. If they release our stress, then we should also help them in releasing their stress."
How to prepare Bantay and Muning as you 'RTO'
Zapanta's first advice for pet owners who have to return to the office: Help your pets release their pent-up energy first thing in the morning.
"After walking and feeding your dogs in the morning, for example, they must be resting later already, right? That is the time you go to work. By then, the pets no longer have enough energy to be anxious. They would be like, 'Okay, I will just be calm down now because I do not have the energy anymore to find my dad or my mom,'" explained Zapanta.
"Unlike when they wake up in the morning and, suddenly, 'Where is my mom? Where is my dad? I cannot find them, oh no!' Because the moment they become anxious, they can be aggressive and depressed, which can lead to destructive chewing, nuisance barking, and whining, among others."
This is also the reason why humans, according to Zapanta, should avoid making it highly obvious and visible that they are leaving for work already; doing so would only heighten their energy, only to be left alone. "It is like you are playing with their feelings. You make them excited and then you just leave them with that extreme emotion. Their energy would just drop all of a sudden when they realized that you left them."
When humans are feeling sad or depressed, their immune system goes down because their bodies cannot function well. This is why humans, in such cases, tend to find something to do that would make them comfortable.
"That is no different from animals. In the wild, when they are anxious or stressed, they would walk or play with water, or they would get a stick and run. They need to release that stress because animals do not want to be stressed," said Zapanta.
For domesticated animals, Zapanta said that pets tend to release their stress by biting, just as in the case of Gaba's Seamus. "The moment they bite, you would notice that their face would relax later. That is because that is how they release stress," he said.
"So, if pet owners do not teach their pets other ways to release stress, the pets would just decide how they would release their stress," noted Zapanta. "And I am telling you, the humans will not like it."
Juju Z. Baluyot is a Manila-based writer who writes in-depth special reports, news features, and opinion-editorial pieces for a wide range of publications. He covers cultures, media, and gender.
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