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August 15, 2021

Back-to-work pet anxiety

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General practitioners may notice an increase in behavioral issues in pets as more people migrate from working from home to returning to the office as the COVID-19 pandemic slows down in the U.S.

JAVMA News spoke with two veterinary behaviorists about what general practitioners should look out for, when to refer, and how to educate clients on potential separation anxiety.

Dog owner and stressed dog in a room with a torn sofa

Dr. Leslie Sinn, a veterinary behaviorist who practices in Virginia, said research prior to the pandemic estimated that 14-20% of the dog population suffered from separation anxiety, but it likely wasn’t severe.

“In many situations, people have been with their pets 24/7, basically for a year, a year and a half,” Dr. Sinn said. “It appears that as people start to go back to work, we’re seeing an increase in problems.”

Dr. Meghan Herron, senior director of behavioral medicine, research education, and outreach at Gigis, an organization dedicated to helping shelter dogs, said pets adopted during the pandemic likely haven’t been left alone much, and it’s probably time to do so.

The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q. What should general practitioners look for?

A. Dr. Sinn: General practitioners should look out for comments about fairly obvious things such as pet owners who can hear their dog barking when they get home or barking when they leave.

Dr. Herron: Any pandemic puppies or patients with a history of separation anxiety are likely candidates for behavioral problems. Think about proactively reaching out to those clients about the signs of separation anxiety such as vocalization, destructive behavior, indoor elimination, hypersalivation, and attempts to escape.

Q. When should a general practitioner refer to a specialist?

A. Dr. Sinn: If a pet owner doesn’t have much of a timeline to maneuver with. For example, if an owner comes home to an eviction notice or if the animal is injuring itself. They need help fast. Behaviorists usually, with severe cases, use a combination of medications to provide relief as quickly as possible.

Dr. Herron: Clients who are at their wit’s end will likely want a referral. Some general practitioners feel comfortable with behavioral issues and mild to moderate separation anxiety. Typically, referral is needed when it gets to the point where a dog is hurting itself.

Q. How can general practitioners educate clients about this?

A. Dr. Sinn: Make a suggestion to every client that they get a little independence from their animal and their animal from them. Suggest they practice being away from each other on a day-to-day basis with simple things such as closing the door when taking a shower or using the facilities.

Consider proactively informing clients that this may be an issue as they return to work.

Dr. Herron: Clients don’t always know what the signs of separation anxiety are; help educate them. Let them know that an animal copes with stress and panic in a variety of ways. Some forms of panic leave behind evidence, but other times, you don’t know about it unless you witness it. Consider suggesting a client monitor their pet with a webcam so they can see what may be happening when their pet is alone.

Proactive strategies to suggest to clients about pets’ separation anxiety

  • Start by leaving for short periods.
  • Create a safe space.
  • If crate training, do it slowly and with many treats.
  • Play classical or soft music when you are away.
  • Use long-lasting treats so your departure is associated with good things. Consider trying pheromones, slow feeders, or food puzzles.
  • Practice teaching animals to go to their comfy place, and reward them. It will act as a physical cue for them to relax.

The AVMA has resources on socializing dogs, including a handout on how to help clients prepare pets for a potential return to work.