- Brian Larsen is the founder and CEO of RestoraPet, a health supplement company.
- While fluffy friends are undoubtedly a helpful stress relief during quarantine, Larsen explains that as pet owners start going back to work as lockdowns lift, lonely pets can experience severe separation anxiety.
- In order to avoid activating stress, form a positive association with leaving the house by giving your pet a treat when you go, and start slowly by being away for only short periods at a time.
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During the pandemic, people are taking solace in the company of their pets.
Brian Larsen. Courtesy photo
With more time at home and limited interaction with loved ones, Americans have turned to pet adoption and fostering. The New York Times recently reported nationwide spikes in applications for both. While pets have long been known to ease stress for humans, they are also attuned to human anxiety, and, according to some studies, they may even mirror it.
As many states initiate post-pandemic reopening plans, many Americans will return to their typical work schedules, settling into a “new normal” and dealing with the anxiety that comes along with it — both for people and pets. Of the 184 million cats and dogs in the US, many will be left alone as typical work routines resume. That transition can trigger anxiety and heightened stress reactions in pets.
Here’s how new pet parents and experienced owners can identify warning signs and manage the transition.
Anxiety in pets may present in ways that owners might easily mistake for behavioral issues. Some dogs experiencing separation anxiety might urinate or defecate inside of the home, or demonstrate destructive behaviors such as chewing or digging. Others may bark, howl, or attempt to escape from the home or yard. Telling signs of immediate distress among dogs include panting and drooling, which may increase as owners prepare to depart and be contrasted by great bursts of affection upon the owner’s return.
Symptoms of separation stress among cats can be more elusive, but cats suffering from anxiety typically become more reclusive, hide, refuse food, and avoid interactions with people in the house. Visual indicators of anxiety in cats can present as panting, dilation of the pupils, and twitching tails and ears. Some may lash out or become aggressive.
Gestures like picking up car keys or putting on shoes can signal to pets that the owner is preparing to leave, and subsequently trigger a stress reaction and anxious behaviors. For this reason, it is important that pet owners disassociate the act of leaving these routine tasks.
Owners can weaken these cues over time by repeatedly exposing pets to these actions in various orders throughout the day without leaving. For example, the owner might put on a jacket, pick up their purse, or handle their car keys frequently in front of pets, thereby weakening the association and reducing the stress-related behaviors over time.
To further minimize the distress a pet may experience when exposed to separation anxiety triggers, owners can create positive associations with their departures. Incorporating rewards into the departure routine, such as giving them a small, healthy treat, can offset feelings of distress. By reframing the departure as a positive experience for the pet, owners can help reduce the stress response.
To ease separation anxiety, it is important to start slowly. Owners can practice leaving pets alone at home for only brief amounts of time at first, limiting absences to be shorter than the amount of time it takes for pets to react negatively. Eventually, this exercise can increase the pet’s confidence in the owner’s intent to return home, and permit owners to gradually practice longer absences. For dogs, owners can also consider using a “safe” word to establish their intent to return and provide consistent reassurance, using the same word upon arrivals and departures.
Pet owners seeking to reduce stress responses in pets — such as chewing, scratching, barking, or soiling carpets — can invest in enrichment activities to provide an alternative outlet for anxious energy. Toys can provide a pleasant and positive way to distract dogs during the owner’s absence. For cats, items like scratching posts can provide new ways to explore and stay active throughout the day. Combined with regular exercise, these enrichment items can keep pets stimulated and engaged and divert energy from unwanted anxious behaviors.
Brian Larsen is the founder and CEO of RestoraPet, a health and hemp supplement company dedicated to improving the lives of pets and pet owners around the world. He lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland with his wife Melanie, cherished dog Nibbler, and cats Henry and Zoe. Connect with him on Instagram and Twitter.