Together Fur-Ever: Stories of Pets, Family and Community

We learned a lot in 2020 – not just how resilient we are as we have gone from crisis to crisis but just how much we truly need each other for so many things. Many of us have been in isolation, working from home, or forced to quarantine for various reasons, and we long for a return of friends, family and co-workers.

Through it all, our pets have been there with us, sometimes happy that we are by their sides and sometimes – especially if you are the proud caretaker of a feline — begrudgingly allowing us some space.

A recent report, “Pets in a Pandemic,” shows that for the majority, 86 percent, pets were a top source of companionship, with 58 percent of new pet owners citing companionship as the main reason for adopting a pet. On the other hand, the report reveals financial hardships have taken a toll, with nearly two-thirds concerned about necessary pet costs. Alarmingly, some 13 percent of those polled said they were forced to surrender their pets last year.

At Española Humane, we know that pets are family. That’s why we work hard to keep families and pets together, providing free services to our community thanks to the support of our donors and grantors. In this new series, Together Fur-Ever, we talk to experts about the challenges facing pet owners as the pandemic eases its grip on our community, yet its economic and psychological effects linger and what we can do together to overcome these issues.

This week’s column takes a look at returning to work after months of spending time with your furry best friend.

Back to Work but not Out of Mind: Overcoming Separation Anxiety

Northern New Mexico pet trainers and veterinarians say the anxiety people feel around returning to work after months of working remotely alongside their pets is understandable: Any change in routine is challenging not just for the pet but for the pet guardian as well.

A recent survey backs up those fears: 78 percent of working pet owners expressed concern over their pets’ anxiety or confusion when they return to a regular work schedule; 75 percent expressed concern about their pressure if they have to return to work without their pet, and two-thirds said they would like to take their pets to work while another two-thirds said they would do so if allowed.

Pets are creatures of habit, and any change of routine can cause anxiety, unwanted behavior that sometimes happens when the pet guardian leaves. It can cause the pet to whimper, bark, or have an “accident” in the house. Pets have also known to be destructive, destroying household items or, in severe cases, even breaking through barriers to escape an enclosure.

Trainers and veterinarians say it’s essential to understand many of these behaviors are just that – behaviors that can be treated, modified and changed. Punishment is never the right course of action, and neither is comforting the dog or cat, although it’s difficult not to fall for those seemingly sad expressions. Both measures will make the problem worse.

It’s always important to first make sure there isn’t an underlying medical issue causing any change in behavior. This might also be the time to discuss a variety of medical treatments with your veterinarian that can help calm your dog through any difficult transition. Medication can help reduce anxiety and help your pet learn to cope. There are other products available such as essential oils and devices, sprays and collars that release calming pheromones.

Separation anxiety is a serious condition for many pets and there are three distinct types, says Erica Beckwith, a certified pet trainer with A Matter of Manners dog training in Santa Fe. Separation anxiety is when a dog becomes stressed when he or she is separated from a specific person or animal and another being will not ease that anxiety. Isolation distress is when the pet is left home alone, while confinement anxiety is when the pet is anxious because of the size of their room or kennel. Sometimes simply changing the room will help.

Beckwith notes that severe separation anxiety is something that should be handled first with the help of a veterinarian and then usually with a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer. Dogs that have this severe disorder, which is usually diagnosed through a video assessment, should never be left alone. This potentially genetic predisposition causes dogs to have destructive behavior that they can’t control. The trainers have a high success rate using a combination of medication and behavior modification.

Anxiety, especially in our current climate, seems to be our new normal. When we first relocated temporarily from Santa Fe, our big dog had trouble adjusting to his new life. We tried many things, including canine anti-depressants, CBD supplements, and dietary changes. He finally stopped having daily panic attacks with the help of Tellington TTouch, a unique training method, and diffusing essential oils. It may have been that he gradually got used to the new environment, but the essential oils did make the house smell great.

A lot of people are first-time pet-owners, something Beckwith and other trainers call pandemic puppies. The lack of socialization is a concern, Beckwith said, but something that can easily be remedied. “People think they have to go to the dog park,” Beckwith said, “but there are other ways to socialize dogs.”

Body handling is critical to young dogs, especially for puppies younger than five months old. Beckwith said harnesses, collars and body wraps are important for dogs to become accustomed to, along with touching. Pairing these activities with a treat is a plus. “It’s about purposeful handling,” she said. “Set in front of them and touch their feet and pop them a treat. Touch their back and pop them a treat; get them ready to go to the vet’s. That’s the whole point of socialization.”

It’s a well-known adage that a happy dog is a tired dog. Once your work schedule is back on track, it might be time to plan for a walk, hike, or exercise with your dog before your workday begins.

Getting your pet used to your absences if you’ve been quarantined for weeks is also a good idea. Many people had a try at it during the first lockdown and then had to try it again during the second, Beckwith said. Crate-training is an option for some pets as it allows them to have a safe environment — often a closet or special room will work. For cats, a catio or bedroom might be a good place that they can call their own. Ensure that your pet has something to keep them active while you’re away, such as a food puzzle or toy, or leave the TV or radio on to distract them, especially if they become easily bored. Then leave for short periods at a time and gradually increase your trips.

For people who find it difficult to leave their pets at home as they return to work, Beckwith suggests an inexpensive in-home camera to keep an eye on what you suspect your dog or cat might be doing while you’re away: sleeping. “It’s nice to check-in and it provides some relief to people.”

Another fun option is signing up for an online class with your dog or cat. Trainers like Beckwith offer a whole slate of online classes such as Boredom Busters, Chorus Line Kicks, and Manners Matter. “Do more with your dog,” she said. “Come home in the evening and take a special class on manners.”

It’s hard to say where our new reality will take us once our life indeed returns to normal, but it is safe to say that our pets will always be where they should be – as a part of our family.

If you have questions about this story or ideas for other topics, please email Ben Swan at [email protected].

“BETTER CITIES FOR PETS Program Report: Pets in a Pandemic” infographic illustrates evolving pet ownership during COVID-19.