Will the dogs and cats be okay when we go back to work?

Pet behaviorists and animal experts offer healthy habits to start before returning to the office.
A British shorthair kitten gets a kiss from its owner's during a cat show in Bucharest, Romania in 2019.
A British shorthair kitten gets a kiss from its owner's during a cat show in Bucharest, Romania in 2019. [ VADIM GHIRDA | AP ]
Published Sept. 21, 2020|Updated Sept. 22, 2020

Teachers' pets hated August.

Take Sam, the 8-year-old basset hound living in Sun City with first grade teacher Kathy Adams, who was headed back to work when schools reopened last month.

“(Sam) knew when I put hose on,” she said. “He would start following me, whining. I felt so bad!”

If there’s a silver lining to the pandemic, maybe it’s been more time with our animals.

But as more people head back to work outside the home, experts say owners should keep an eye out for behavioral changes in cats and dogs now accustomed to a 24-hour buffet of rubs, treats and their owners' presence.

Tarpon Springs' Kristen Levine, who publishes the website Pet Living, said the veterinarians she worked with to create the Pet Parents Back-to-Work Guide aren’t necessarily expecting a “mad rush” to the vet’s office due to dogs freaking out, but those specializing in behavior are certainly expecting to diagnose new cases of “separation anxiety.”

Pets with the disorder perceive their owners' absence as dangerous, and the emotional distress produces behavior that’s destructive to the home or themselves.

“They literally panic,” Levine said. “It’s not super common, but dogs can develop it.”

Many more pups will likely experience some anxiety or behavioral changes, but to a lesser degree.

People who adopted new dogs during the pandemic — and there are many — might be about to see a new side of their pet. “They don’t know anything else,” Levine said. “They think we spend all our time at home, so it may be more challenging with them.”

Tampa’s Traci Todd said her German shepherd’s cord chewing habit stopped for months during work from home, and returned when she left the house again. She bought a pet camera with a speaker that lets her talk to him from work, and dispense treats remotely.

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Kim Griffin in Gulfport said all three of her pups got so stressed when she and her husband went back to work as teachers they ended up at the emergency vet with gastrointestinal distress and dehydration.

“It started a week after we went back,” she said. “Two different vets, no real explanation. No virus, not bacterial, no change in food. Just our change in being home.”

Cat behavior and wellness expert Jackson Galaxy, host of Animal Planet’s My Cat From Hell said that while dogs are usually more associated with separation anxiety, it can happen with cats, too.

“It’s a real thing,” he said.

Cats are generally more focused on territory, he said, while dogs are more focused on their humans. They’re also very sensitive to sound.

Jackson Galaxy, from Animal Planet's "My Cat From Hell," poses for a portrait to promote "Total Cat Mojo: The Ultimate Guide To Life With Your Cat."
Jackson Galaxy, from Animal Planet's "My Cat From Hell," poses for a portrait to promote "Total Cat Mojo: The Ultimate Guide To Life With Your Cat." [ Brian Ach/Invision/AP ]
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That, he said, is why cats were more likely to act weird at the start of the pandemic when schools and offices closed. Our bodies, video calls and notifications significantly altered that territory.

But now we’re about to alter it again. Cats also love a routine, and might be used to one you can’t maintain from outside the house.

“When we’ve settled into a rhythm with them over months, and all the sudden we’re gone for 10 or 12 hours a day, that’s going to have an impact on them,” Galaxy said. “They’re just going to express it differently.”

Galaxy described one case at the start of the pandemic where the kids had returned home from college. “They started getting squirrely and blasting their music,” he said, “and the cat literally jumped off the second story balcony to get away from that.”

Related: Look at my tiny dog if you feel dead inside

Now he said people should watch out for petting that turns into a bite, accidents outside the litter box, or cats clawing and destroying pieces of furniture they’d previously ignored.

He hosts a free, online Jackson Galaxy Cat Camp on Sept. 26, where he said people can learn more about why their cat does what it does.

Some pet owners are filling their absence by paying someone else to be there. Virginia Gonzales, a St. Petersburg-based dog walker and pet-sitter, said the volume of drop-in visits and walks she has been hired for ticked up significantly in the past six weeks. “I’m getting busier as people are going back to work as well as their real lives.”

Bear the German shepherd started chewing cords again when his owner Traci Todd returned to work.
Bear the German shepherd started chewing cords again when his owner Traci Todd returned to work. [ Courtesy of Traci Todd ]

Some owners said they’re sending dogs to doggie day care for the first time.

But experts said there are things people can do themselves to help their pets get through this strange time. They stressed, however, that it’s easier if you start working on it before returning to work outside the house.

Galaxy said one tip is to start preparing cats or dogs for your absence by leaving for short periods and building up to longer ventures away.

“Do all the things you’d normally do if you were going to be gone all day, get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, grab the keys and leave for 15 minutes,” he said. “You want to hit that 15-minute mark, because most cats and dogs will experience separation anxiety in the first 15 minutes.”

Other tips:

Get them used to being alone again: That could mean using a crate, or just giving them quiet time while you work in another room with the door closed. “Maybe just an hour to let them take a nap, or give them a special treat,” Levine said. “Find a place where they’re comfortable, but not near you.”

Build a predictable routine that will work in the future, home or away: Feeding your pets at the same time daily is important, especially for cats. They know when it’s time to eat, or what time they always get treats, and they can stress out more than you realize when it doesn’t happen on schedule. Try to do it when you’d be home from work anyway. Same for scheduled walks and play times.

Make it fun for them when you’re not home: Galaxy says to “catify” your living space with lots of vertical climbing surfaces. You can also create a good association with your departure by leaving your pet with a special treat, especially the kind contained inside an interactive toy that your dog has to work for. Some find that leaving the TV or radio on helps, but warned against animal channels, as hearing other barking dogs could be stressful.

Try natural calming solutions: Experiment and see if they work for your pet. There are a lot of options, from pressure garments like the Thunder Shirt to aromatherapy and synthetic pheromone diffusers that plug into an outlet or CBD chews meant to have a calming effect.

Ask your vet: If your pet’s anxiety is causing concerning or destructive behavior, get advice from your vet. There are treatments meant to help your pet without affecting their energy or personality.