how to prevent separation anxiety
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Heading back to work is an adjustment for everyone, but it can be especially upsetting for pandemic pets

For folks going back to the office this fall (or the 78.6 percent of British Columbians who prefer a hybrid of remote and in-person work), the new new normal will require some adaptation. And for those of us who have gained a four-legged family member during the pandemic, the adjustment may be extra difficult. After 18-plus months of unlimited cuddles, our cats and dogs are going to have to deal with a lot more alone time.

In an effort to minimize the barking, whining and destruction of property that often accompanies separation anxiety, we talked to a vet about the best ways to prepare your pet for the return to work.

Dr. Karren Prost is a companion animal veterinary services manager at Ceva Animal Health Canada. When it comes to separation anxiety, it’s best to be proactive, she says: “Take the time to work on this, because it’s a lot easier to prevent than to treat when it’s a problem.” Here are some of her tips on the best ways to foster healthy independence in your pet.

1. Don’t just get another pet

Pet owners may think that their dog or cat is lonely, but Prost argues that isn’t the case. “The problem is not a lack of companionship, the problem is being away from you,” she says. In most cases, getting another pet will just increase your workload, and you’ll still have to deal with pet No. 1’s separation anxiety.

2. Take some time to ignore them

“I realize this almost sounds mean,” Prost says, “but it’s important to take time out of the day to not always being fussing over your pet.” If your pet expects constant attention (for example, if they’re sitting on your lap while you work), they’ll be distressed when left alone, so take some time to gently ignore them while you're still home. The vet suggests doing household chores like washing dishes and laundry without paying attention to your pet at all.

3. Give them something to entertain them

A toy filled with peanut butter can do wonders for anxious or bored pets. Puzzle toys work, too, and Prost says that some can even be occupied by the TV or radio—it depends on the pet. “Some like the noise; others couldn’t care less,” she quips. Maybe your cat will love Squid Game.

4. Keep your cool when arriving home

While the grand return is a joyous occasion for both owners and pets, it’s a bad idea to act super excited when you get home. “You don’t want to make a very big spectacle of leaving and arriving, because all the pet is going to be doing when you leave is staring at the door and waiting  for you to get home,” Prost says. Instead, she advises owners to calmly enter the household, take off their jacket/shoes, put some things away, and then reward the pet with treats and attention once they are composed.

5. Try using a calming artificial pheromone

One strategy for preventing separation anxiety in dogs is using an artificial pheromone that mimics the pheromone that mother dogs make. “Pheromones are odourless messages," explains Prost, who recommends a calming brand called Adaptil. “These messages can be sensed by dogs of all ages, not just puppies, and it helps them feel calm.”

We asked the vet if dogs can become reliant on—or addicted to—something like this, and she says that isn’t the case at all. “They don’t build a tolerance, and they don’t get dependent on it,” she assures. Check with your family vet before buying to see if pheromones might be a good fit.

6. Don’t assume it’s separation anxiety

This is a big one, and something that the vet says most pet owners don’t think about. “Separation anxiety is an easy word to throw around,” Prost says, “but sometimes there are fixable or preventative things that you can do that aren’t related at all to separation anxiety.” She suggests ensuring that your pet is getting the recommended amount of exercise and playtime, and that they have a proper checkup with their vet. “Maybe it’s boredom; maybe it’s lack of structure; maybe they are being destructive for a medical reason,” she says. “It’s important to make sure that you check everything else off the list.”