January 7, 2022

What Happens When Pet Parents Go Back To Work?

Pets have gotten used to having their families home all the time. Learn how you can ease the transition back to the office for your pets missing you at home.

Golden Retriever sitting on the couch with their paw on their pet parent's hand as if they don't want their human to leave

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted normal behaviors in humans, and pets have noticed. Since so many people have started working from home, many pets have experienced dramatic changes to their routines, including the addition of many more walks and hours of petting. Pets who get used to spending a lot of time with their owners may experience separation anxiety once their pet parents return to work, but families can help make that transition a little easier.

As many cities across the US begin to re-open, pet parents should prepare their furry companions and minimize the impact of returning to work and life as usual. Many pet owners today have brand new pets — shelters saw record numbers of adoptions during quarantine. As a result, many pets have only experienced life with lots of attention and affection from their owners. A long day home alone may be a jarring experience. 

Here are some explanations of behavioral changes and acclimatization tips to share with clients.

Why Have Pets Been Acting So Strangely?  

In recent months, pet parents have started approaching their vets with a slew of questions about unusual behaviors. Once aloof pets may show a more affectionate side, to the point that they can’t even stand to let their owners visit another room without popping their paw under the door. As an article from Vox points out, it could be that many of these pets are experiencing something called “displacement.” Displacement behaviors occur in response to a major change in routine — the animal is “displacing” their stress with an unusual behavior. Overgrooming, strange poses, and unusual pouncing are other common signs of displacement. 

Many animals display signs of displacement — not just dogs and cats. Cockatiels have been known to mistake humans for their mates, causing them to lay unfertilized eggs. This is more likely to happen when humans are around all the time. 

Separation Anxiety: The Struggle of Pet Parents Going Back to Work  

Clinginess might be cute at first, but it can be a warning sign for trouble down the road. Once pet parents return to work, animals, especially dogs, may start to show signs of separation anxiety. Families should know the signs, and be ready to address new problem behaviors. 

Separation Anxiety in Dogs 

When dogs feel upset at their person leaving, barking for long periods of time is an easy-to-spot symptom. Dogs may also refuse to eat, destroy furniture, and chew their way out of enclosures. Pacing is another sign, as well as going to the bathroom in places they know they’re not supposed to. Shaking in smaller breeds is also common. 

No matter what the literature says, pet parents can probably easily spot signs of distress and anxiety in their pets. Families with dogs who behave anxiously when they leave have probably already started to feel a pang of worry about how their dog will react to their more prolonged absences. 

Fortunately, there are a few tricks to get dogs used to new routines before they start.  Some animal behavior experts recommend you go through the motions of going to work during the weeks before it actually happens. This could include putting a dog in their kennel, and actually leaving the apartment for an extended period of time — even if it’s just to go for a walk or to run an errand. 

Dogs pick up on signs, like owners grabbing their keys, and take them as an anxiety-inducing cue. It may be possible for pet parents to calm their nerves by performing “getting ready” rituals — like picking up keys — during times of the day when they aren’t yet leaving. 

Separation Anxiety in Cats 

Despite their reputation for having a more detached attitude toward humans, a recent study demonstrated that cats have similar attachment styles as human infants. When humans return, their cats have a moment of interest before resuming their play, just like babies do. 

In one survey, most cats displayed symptoms of separation anxiety by urinating outside of their litter box — most cat families have probably experienced this type of protest from their feline companions. Some of the other common symptoms include meowing more often, behaving more aggressively, increased apathy, and defecating in less-than-ideal locations. 

Can Other Animals Develop Separation Anxiety? 

Animals like birds and rats can be quite social, and definitely form attachments to their families. There isn’t research to suggest that they have separation anxiety, but it’s still a good idea to get them used to their new routine before their owners return to work. Remember that putting (breathable) blankets over bird cages in the evening can encourage them to sleep, and good sleep is one of the top requirements for a bird’s solid mental health. They should also have their cages kept in a quiet area. 

How Else to Prevent a Clingy Pet? 

Even with some practice, going to work might leave pet parents with some residual feelings of guilt. It’s always worth remembering: pets are happier when they have plenty of distraction. Frozen kongs for dogs and a sunny perch for cats can make an owner’s absence a bit less distressing. There are also medications for dogs to treat severe separation anxiety, which function much like Prozac for humans. Families of cats who display severe symptoms of anxiety (especially elimination behaviors) may also want to consider prescription medications

Of course, it’s not just pets who experience some unhappiness in the face of separation. Pet parents will probably miss their pets more than usual once they return to a regular 9-to-5. If having a phone full of pet candid photos isn’t cutting it, it may be worth investing in a pet-sitting camera to make sure all is well at home.