As vaccination rates improve in parts of the globe, workers are beginning to trickle back into offices. According to a July NPR report, 70 percent of companies are planning to bring workers back into offices in the fall of 2021, though the Delta variant may affect those plans.
But as many people return to work, one creature will surely feel our absence keenly: our pups. Dogs grew closer to their owners than ever before, and adoption rates of new pups skyrocketed during the pandemic, though some reports suggest owners are now returning their pets to shelters.
One potential cause for owners returning dogs to shelters is behavioral issues, such as separation anxiety. As workers return to offices, owners must prepare their pets for the change in routine and stay attuned to their emotional needs.
Inverse reviewed the science and spoke with experts about the seven essential questions about how to keep pups happy and anxiety-free while you’re away at work.
“It’s important to work with your veterinarian to formulate a plan to help your pet be more comfortable when left alone,” Kristin Wuellner, a licensed veterinarian at Hill’s Pet Nutrition, tells Inverse.
7. What is separation anxiety?
“Separation anxiety is a condition where pets may become extremely anxious due to separation from their owners,” Wuellner says.
Separation anxiety is more than the typical whimpering a lonely dog might emit when an owner leaves for work. According to a report by the Veterinary Clinics of North America, other symptoms might include:
- eliminating (peeing or pooping) indoors
- destructive behavior
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) includes pacing and trying to escape from enclosures or the home on their list.
According to the American Kennel Club, sudden schedule changes — such as returning to the office after spending more than a year at home with your pet — can trigger separation anxiety.
Wuellner offers two simple tips for figuring out whether your dog may have separation anxiety upon your return to the office.
“First, pet parents should simply try stepping out of their homes and see how their pet reacts,” Wuellner says. “If a pet is incessantly barking, scratching at the door, and even tearing up the house, they’re likely experiencing some degree of separation anxiety.”
Second, Wuellner suggests monitoring your dog’s mood and behavior as you’re about to leave home.
“If a pet starts to shake, cry, lose appetite, or exhibit other behavior changes, they may be experiencing separation anxiety and have not been properly trained for their owner to be away,” Wuellner says.
Not all dogs will experience separation anxiety when their owners depart for the office, but they may have some behavioral changes as their routine gets disrupted.
If you’re unsure whether your dog has separation anxiety, speak with your veterinarian.
6. Are adopted dogs more likely to experience separation anxiety?
Adoption rates rose significantly during the pandemic, and previous studies have shown that adopted dogs often exhibit anxiety shortly after being adopted.
However, Wuellner suggests that “adopted dogs are just as likely to experience separation anxiety as any other.”
Through proper training and consultation with a veterinarian, dog owners can prevent separation anxiety by preparing their dog — adopted or not — for the eventual separation.
5. How should we treat separation anxiety as workers return to offices?
According to a recent study of new pet owners and veterinarians conducted by Hill's Pet Nutrition and Kelton Global, 87 percent of veterinarians are worried about pets dealing with separation anxiety when owners return to the office.
Similarly, 69 percent of new pet owners are also worried about how return-to-office policies will affect their animal’s well-being.
Wuellner says to look out for separation anxiety when doing small things like socializing or attending events. She adds, “with patience, the right training, and help from your veterinarian, many pets can become comfortable with time away from their owners.”
A 2018 study suggests that “petting a dog before a brief separation from the owner may have a positive effect, making the dog calmer during the separation itself.”
4. How can pet owners keep their dogs safe and happy while they're at work?
Whether or not your dog receives a separation anxiety diagnosis, there’s still a fair chance they’ll experience distress from your sudden absence.
It’s essential to train your dog in advance to prepare for your absence and to make their usual routine feel as uninterrupted as possible.
“As a general suggestion, if you expect to leave your new pet home alone in the foreseeable future, I typically suggest to ease them into it,” Wuellner suggests.
A few tips:
- Maintain your dog’s same meal plan
- Start by leaving the house in “small increments” (5, 10, and 15 minutes, etc.) so the pet gradually “becomes comfortable with this new way of life”
- Don’t make a big deal of separating from your dog every time you leave home, as that can increase a dog’s anxiety
- Signal to your pet that leaving home is a normal, regular event
“Eventually, many pets will get the signal that their owner will be back, and they do not have to worry,” Wuellner adds.
But at the end of the day, each dog is unique, and some may require more training than others. Seek out veterinary advice if you’re worried about your pup’s mental health while you’re at the office.
“Some pets may need some extra help, and that’s ok, too,” Wuellner says. “Work with your veterinarian to find a plan that helps your pet feel most comfortable.”
3. Can I buy toys to distract my dog while I’m at work?
If your dog has frequent anxiety issues, you can try buying certain products, such as compression vests, to ease their anxiety. In recent years, pet stores have begun offering dog calming collars, which release “dog-appeasing pheromones” (DAP) as a form of aromatherapy for dogs.
A 2010 study in the Canadian Veterinary Journal found that “use of DAP could decrease separation-induced anxiety, distress, and fear in inpatients, and possibly facilitate recovery in hospitalized dogs.”
However, a more recent study found that DAP didn’t significantly affect dogs’ behavior — though the dogs in that study were not necessarily diagnosed with separation anxiety.
Consult with your veterinarian about whether any of these anxiety-relieving products are appropriate for my dog. But if you’re just seeking to keep your pup from growing bored while you’re at work, you have plenty of entertaining options.
“I like toys that help dispense treats so that they’re kept busy while their owners are away,” Wuellner says. These toys include:
- Lick mats
- Treat dispensers
- Durable rubber chew toys (look for toys with a treat slot)
Try out different toys to figure out what works best for your pet. “It’s important to know your pets’ toy preferences and be sure to avoid anything that they could potentially chew up or destroy,” Wuellner adds.
You can also train your dog to recognize “special, high-value treats, which you only give to your pet went they need to calm down or when you’re leaving the house,” Wuellner says. Treats that dogs can enjoy for longer periods, such as thick jerky strips, could be a good option.
2. Is it ever unsafe to keep a dog home alone while you’re at work?
There are some cases where it’s not appropriate for a pet to remain home alone, especially if they have been diagnosed with separation anxiety.
A previous study in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association found that pets in homes with a single adult human were 2.5 times more likely to develop separation anxiety than pups in homes with multiple adult owners, suggesting that alone time may not always be beneficial for a pup’s mental health if they develop an attachment to a single owner.
“There are a lot of different reasons where it may not be appropriate for a dog to remain home alone, and ultimately, pet parents should be critically thinking about that every time they are considering leaving home,” Wuellner says.
Wuellner says that pet owners should pay attention to signs that a dog may not be adjusting well to time alone. These signs include:
- Behaving differently than normal
- Feeling physically unwell
- Eating something they shouldn’t have, such as a non-food item
If you notice your dog experiencing these issues persistently, consult with your veterinarian. You may want to pay for a dog daycare service or ask a friend to check in with your pup while you’re at work.
1. How can you keep a dog entertained while you're working from home?
Even remote workers may struggle to keep pups occupied as the pandemic continues. Some workers may continue to work remotely, but their job demands may have increased in recent months. Other life factors — such as having a child or a busier calendar as we return to in-person socializing — could mean there’s less time to devote to our pups.
But despite these life changes, it’s important to maintain a routine and ensure a sense of stability to keep your pup’s mood in check.
“A consistent routine signals to pets when it’s playtime, mealtime, and when it's time to wind down,” Wuellner says.
If your dog is accustomed to taking three walks a day in the morning, afternoon, and evening, it’s important to keep up that routine when life gets busier, whether you walk your pup yourself or hire a dog walker.
“It’s always good to start the day with some exercise or training so that they’re mentally and physically engaged and have exerted some energy before it’s time for their parents to clock in for work,” Wuellner says.
The Inverse Analysis — Changes in routine, such as a sudden return to the office, can affect your pup’s mental well-being, though not all dogs will experience separation anxiety.
The most important thing is to stay vigilant. If you notice your pet displaying unusual behaviors, physical ailments, or other signs of distress, speak with a licensed veterinary professional or dog behaviorist about how best to help your pet.
While some dog trainers may claim to fix separation anxiety, they cannot legally diagnose medical disorders. Their methods also may not take into account sound veterinary advice, according to a 2020 study.
“When in doubt, always consult with your veterinarian,” Wuellner says.