As the pandemic arrived in the United States, many animal shelters saw a high adoption rate in domesticated animals like cats and dogs. A few weeks into quarantine, most were boasting empty cages, easily being able to close their doors to align with stay-at-home orders.
According to Stephanie Flower, animal behavior specialist at the Cleveland Animal Protective League in Cleveland; Dr. Jeremy L. Welsh, veterinarian at the Shaker Heights Animal Hospital in Shaker Heights; and Will Zaslavsky, dog behavior specialist at Geauga Humane Society’s Rescue Village in Russell Township, this surge in adoptions can be attributed to the sheer amount of time we’re spending at home.
“Gravitating towards the easiest answer, it’s probably because people thought being home all the time makes it a great time to get a pet,” Zaslavsky said. “They could do the training and be with them, forming that bond and creating habits.”
Welsh added, “Early in the pandemic, many shelters were ordered to close their doors. So, there was a physical need to find temporary and forever homes for the shelter pet population. But emotionally, I believe many people felt the need to serve and contribute their time and resources as a way to help society during the pandemic. Pet ownership and/or fostering a pet can be very rewarding for those struggling to find peace and purpose during challenging times as well.”
Much time at home for owners creates and promotes structure for a new pet, Flower said.
“You’re able to offer them a bit more structure and direction when you’re there, especially when you’re talking about a puppy, or a young energetic dog or kitten,” she noted. “They can get into a lot of things they’re not supposed to because no one is there to tell them what they’d rather them do instead. So, being able to be there and actually reward and praise them for good behavior can actually help them learn faster.”
Welsh said, “The major benefits include more time to bond, develop trust and establish healthy routines (diet, exercise, toilet training, etc.). The early development of this bond will lead to a healthy, lifelong relationship between the pet and pet owner.”
But, as people begin to return to work as the “new normal” is introduced, these new pets face a jarring change in home life. After being with their owner all day, the shift to being alone for at least eight hours daily can cause emotional distress like separation anxiety in the animal. For dogs especially, Zaslavsky said this behavior presents in a range of ways.
“It could range from dogs crying all day and night, to them mutilating themselves trying to chew through a wall,” he explained. “Dogs are so social and will do almost anything to be in our presence. For animals who are insecure, we do somewhat become a security blanket for them. They don’t really learn the coping skills they need to be away from us, and it really doesn’t take long to establish that dynamic.”
In cats, Welsh said, this could manifest as overgrooming, weight gain, weight loss, increased vomiting or toileting problems.
More generally, Flower said behaviors are different for every kind of pet. But, pet owners should be sure to get their pet formally diagnosed with separation anxiety if a problem is observed. She explained that sometimes this behavior could really just come from pure boredom.
“They think that just because the dog or cat is home alone and they destroy a couch cushion, they say ‘oh, they have anxiety because I was gone,’” she said. “But, if you actually take time to videotape the pet, you’d typically see them having a great time tearing up the cushions because they were bored.”
Whether it is separation anxiety or just boredom, new pet owners will face some sort of transition in their pet as they return to work. To manage this behavior, pet owners should look to stabilize the home environment. Both Zaslavsky and Flower suggested leaving the pet alone for short amounts of time. “Start by leaving for five minutes, then 10 and then 15, so that if they start to feel anxious, you can actually add things to their environment to prevent them feeling that way when you leave,” Flower noted. “The biggest thing you can do is give them enrichment like a Kong stuffed with wet food or a toy. You want to give something that is going to engage them, so by the time you actually leave, they’re already busy and that anxiety didn’t have time to set in.”
Zaslavsky added, “As long as you keep your (pet) in their comfort zone that whole time, you can increase that period to where you can get up to the full day or however long you have to leave them alone.”
For pet owners who are facing this for the first time or are really struggling with correcting this behavior, Welsh said there is no shame in asking for help.
“Pet parents should consider establishing a relationship with a local pet day care or pet sitting/walking service to help relieve the pet owners’ fear of leaving their pet,” he said. “If this is established before the pet owners return to work, it can help ease that transition for both the pet and the owner.”