Road to Recovery

It’s time to start preparing Fluffy and Fido for post-pandemic life

It might seem too soon to think about preparing pets for the time humans will return to offices and schools. After all, a coronavirus vaccine isn’t expected to be widely available until spring at the earliest, which means that most Americans who were sent home to work or study remotely will remain there for at least several more months.

But according to animal expert Zazie Todd, author of “Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy,” the eventual separation will be easier for pets “if you make changes gradually, starting potentially a long time beforehand.” So, in the spirit of doing what’s best for four-legged family members, we asked several experts how to prepare our pets and, let’s face it, ourselves to spend weekdays without one another’s company.

In addition to Todd, we spoke with Clive Wynne, psychology professor and director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University and the author of “Dog Is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You,” and Monique Udell, an associate professor in the Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences at Oregon State University who has done research on cats and dogs. We also emailed with Alexandra Horowitz, who runs the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College and whose most recent book is “Our Dogs, Ourselves.” Here are their answers to some common questions.

Will my pets be okay when our house is suddenly empty during the day?

“The good news,” Todd said, “is that probably they will be okay for things to go back.” But if you’ve been with your pet 24/7 and are suddenly going to be gone for a large chunk of each weekday, she added, “that’s a huge change” that should be introduced gradually. Dogs and cats relish routine, Todd said. “They would prefer to get their meals at the same time every day. And your dog would rather go for walks at the same time every day.”

Wynne agreed that pets are adaptable but warned that they do have their limits. Owners should be careful: “not to push them beyond the range of what a dog, an animal, can be expected to tolerate.”

Wynne said your pet will let you know if you’ve crossed that line. “In each of these things, it’s about taking small steps and watching your animal to see that your animal is comfortable before pushing any further, and always trying to stop the process while everybody is still relaxed and comfortable.”

If you’re a cat owner who thinks none of this applies to you, think again. “I would say that cats may often actually have a stronger emotional or behavioral response to change than dogs,” Udell said, though we might not notice those reactions. Although we often think of dogs as the more social pets, Udell said, “cats can be very social, and they can engage in a lot of deep social interactions with people, whether that be petting and cuddling or play.”

What steps should I take to gradually prepare my pets for this change?

The experts advised establishing a routine that’s close to the one you will keep when life goes back to “normal.” Think about when you wake up and go to bed, when you feed them — even, Udell said, the temperature of your house and the light-dark cycle. Then, gradually include some alone time for your pets. That might be tough if you’re in an area where you’re supposed to be sticking close

to home, Todd acknowledged. “In a worst-case scenario, it might be going and sitting in your car or going for a walk for half an hour, just so that your pet gets some time on their own,” she said.

You might have to break some habits. Walking your dog more than usual? Consider whether your pet really needs those extra walks, Horowitz said; if so, make accommodations for your dog to get them when you’re back at work. Enjoy taking the dog with you when you run a quick errand? Consider leaving your pet at home. “I love taking my dog along with me on those rare occasions when I go out,” Wynne said. But “it would be better for the dog to be reminded that I may go away, and I may go away at unpredictable times for unpredictable lengths of time, but that the world continues to be stable, and I will always come back.”

If you’ve been paying more attention to your cat because you’ve been home, you shouldn’t suddenly eliminate that engagement when you go back to work, Udell said. Instead, she suggested, start shifting those interactions to times of the day when you’ll be available post-pandemic.

And keep in mind that your pet might not be as devastated as you fear. Wynne noted that although pets enjoy interacting with people, they also need to sleep about 12 or 14 hours a day. “So if a dog has been in such a busy household that it’s overstimulated,” he said, “it’s probably just going to be grateful to get a bit more sleep.”

What about pets purchased or adopted during the pandemic? This is all they know.

“We don’t know for certain, but most likely they will have a harder time, because they haven’t experienced those routines before,” Todd said. That means you need to expose them to being alone even more gradually than the pets you owned before the pandemic, she said. “Don’t just go out for a two-hour walk and leave them home alone when they’ve never been left home alone before.”

“Start with pointless walks around the block without your dog — just 10 minutes,” Wynne suggested. “And make sure every day you take a pointless 10-minute stroll without the dog, perverse as that will feel, and let the dog get used to this.” Then start building up the length of time you leave the dog alone.

Both Todd and Udell counseled that the once-common advice to ignore your pet when leaving or returning is out of date. Making a fuss over your dog or cat upon your return does not cause separation anxiety, Todd said. “What your animal needs,” Udell said, “is for you to be accurately responsive to their needs.”

As for pandemic kittens, Udell wasn’t convinced that they will have a harder time adjusting, because they’ve had such intensive socialization. “Meeting those needs early in that relationship and being very available and present might actually help develop a more resilient cat that does better in your absence,” she said. How new pets will react is a “giant social question that we’re all going to be experiencing at the same time,” she added. “But I’m hoping for the positive outcome.”

What if my pet barks, urinates or chews things when I’m gone?

“If the animal shows signs of distress, like, you know, peeing inappropriately and crying or barking uncontrollably, then I would take a step back, and I would reduce the intensity of what you’re trying to do,” Wynne said. “If your dog is so distressed, even by you going out for 10 minutes, just go out the door, count to 10 and come back in. And once that works, go out the door and count to 20 and come back in. Baby steps.”

Horowitz suggested ensuring that dogs get their exercise before you leave. “This could include some long play bouts, not just walks. And give them something to do when you’re gone. ‘Chewing’ happens because they don’t have anything interesting (and permissible) to chew on.”

And if I try these suggestions and the behavior continues?

“If your dog or cat is soiling while you’re out, it is not necessarily separation anxiety; it could be a medical issue,” Todd said. “So, it is important to get them checked at the vet,” because there are other issues that will need to be ruled out, too, including boredom. “If a vet diagnoses a separation anxiety, very often they will want to prescribe medications for the pet, which will help alongside any behavioral treatments that you want to do.” Treatment for separation anxiety can take a long time, she said.

Wynne noted that although there are plenty of people out there offering their services as pet behaviorists or animal trainers, there’s no licensing, as with a vet or a human psychologist. “Anybody who’s watched a TV show can claim to be an animal trainer, an animal behaviorist.” That means doing your due diligence to ensure the person is certified through a respected organization, such as the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers.

Is getting my pet a companion pet a good idea?

“This depends on the animal. Some are very attached to their people; others get a lot of pleasure from” other members of their species, Horowitz said. “So, you have to know your animal.”

Todd and Udell cautioned, however, against thinking that a companion pet will cure your pet’s separation anxiety. Research is showing “that the other animal may play a role, but it’s likely not the same role as the owner,” Udell said. “And so, it’s not a replacement.”

Whether one pet will welcome a second depends on your pet’s nature and its age, as well as the age and species of the companion. “Many dogs will get on with another dog in the home, more so than cats,” Todd said. But “for both dogs and cats, it depends a lot on the early experiences they had” and whether they were socialized to get along with other animals. “Once an animal is adult, it can be very difficult to get an animal to accept a member of a new species as a friend, as a companion,” Wynne noted.

If you are considering a second pet, Horowitz said, have the pets meet each other, and find out everything you can about the new animal. “Also be sure that you have the time to acclimate the new animal to your home” before resuming pre-pandemic life. If you are unsure how your pet will react to another animal in the household, Todd suggested looking for a shelter that offers a foster-to-adopt program, so you can return the dog or cat if it doesn’t work out.

My pandemic pet has never had to deal with strangers in the house. How do I prepare them?

“Some dogs will actually be fine with that,” Todd said, “and for some dogs, that will be a much more difficult transition.” A good strategy is to designate a space — a mat, crate or room — that they can retreat to if they don’t want to interact with a visitor or that you can send them to for calming down if they react too excitedly. Get them used to the space before anyone starts to visit.

(In fact, Todd said, “it’s always a good idea to have a safe space where your dog or cat can go if they want some quiet time to just chill out and relax.” When your pet seeks out that spot, you should let them stay there, and teach your children not to disturb the pet when it’s in there.)

When you think it’s safe — pandemic-wise — you can ask a friend to practice coming into the house multiple times. Give your dog a treat when it behaves, Todd said. (Don’t have the friend give the treat; you don’t want a nervous dog to have to approach a stranger.)

If your dog is too sensitive for practice entries, “then you might need to waste some time talking on the threshold until the dog could get used to that,” Wynne said.

If you simply cannot take the introduction of new people or your gradual absences slowly enough, and your dog is “overwhelmed by any departure you might make or by any introduction of new people, no matter how briefly you’re away or no matter what distance you keep the person who comes to your door,” Wynne said, it might be time to consider consulting a vet about medication.

As noted above, cats who are exposed to different types of animals early in life tend to be more accepting of them. The same goes for people. So a cat who has been living alone with one person during the pandemic, Udell said, “may or may not have the skills to interact in a comfortable way with somebody who does not fit into that mold.”

How can I get over my guilt and sadness about leaving them?

“I think it’s only natural to feel a bit sad,” Todd said, pointing out that Americans increasingly think of dogs and cats not as pets but as family members.

Rather than feeling guilty, Horowitz said, make sure your pet has some companionship. “Maybe you can bring your pet, under some circumstances, to work. Find a dog walker or community doggy day care you like and trust. If you can, go home in the middle of the day. And when you’re home, spend quality time with them.”

Wynne, however, isn’t convinced that guilt is entirely without merit. In general, he thinks we Americans expect our dogs “to put up with being on their own for longer than is conscionable.” Although he doesn’t necessarily advocate adopting the Swedish law that says that dogs can’t be left alone at home for more than six hours at a stretch, “it’s a good rule to live by.” There are ways of working around it, such as hiring a dog walker or getting a companion pet, he noted. But dogs have highly social and loving natures, and “it’s just not fair, not reasonable, to ask them to cope” with our long absences.

Both he and Todd said they hoped the general success of the country’s forced experiment with remote work will encourage employers to continue offering it as an option. “I hope that more people, after the pandemic is over, will at least have the option of working at home some of the time, some days of the week,” Wynne said. “That could be a silver lining to come out of the miserable times that we’re in. ”

Edited by Kendra Nichols. Copy edited by Rachael Bolek. Illustrations by Davide Bonazzi for The Washington Post. Designed by Victoria Adams Fogg.

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