Local pet behaviorist Dr. Lore Haug (texasvetbehavior.com) answers our burning questions about what lies ahead for our pets and how we can all (furry friends and humans alike) prepare to navigate the eventual return of “normal” life, sans any drama llamas (or cats and dogs). 

What’s the best way to prepare my pet for when I go back to work?

Texas Veterinary Behavior

For people who’ve been working from home, they’re going to have to ease their pets back into that schedule.

If they have gotten out of practice and aren’t used to being alone without anyone in the house anymore, you have to start back up with slow absences. Leave enrichment toys down and go out for 30 minutes to start. Work up to an hour, an hour and a half, and so on.

And video your pet so you can watch their behavior when you’re gone. You’ll be able to see if there are any symptoms of distress, and you can know the point at which you need to intervene and get some help—maybe the pet needs medication temporarily, or something like that to keep them from getting overwhelmed. 

What are some general signs to look out for that things aren’t okay with my pet’s mental health?

I think pet owners, especially dog owners, are usually pretty good at knowing when their dog is distressed, because they often act out. They chew things up, bark a lot, or pace and pant—the symptoms are a lot more noticeable.

It’s a little bit harder with cats because when they get stressed, they tend to just hide. It can be sort of out of sight out of mind at times for us. You may not realize how badly the cat’s welfare has been affected when it lies around a lot or is hiding, so it’s much more difficult for people to notice welfare problems with cats.

How can we tell if our pet’s mental health is suffering because of separation-related distress?

Separation-related distress symptoms are going to manifest when the owner is either getting ready to leave or when they’re gone. If the owner is home sitting around watching TV and the dog is pacing around and panting, that’s not because of separation.

My dog keeps clawing at the door when I leave. What can I do about it?

Having cameras is really helpful. They help us tailor treatments for dogs with different types of separation-related distress because we can watch their patterns on video. Maybe a dog will claw at the door for one to five minutes and then go and sleep on the couch. How we treat that may be different from a dog that’s clawing at the door off and on all day long, who’s howling, barking, or chewing things up. 

Either way, the owner should find somebody that’s educated in behavior modification to help them work through a process. They’ll know what kind of steps to take to work the pet through this so they can relax and rest comfortably when an owner prepares to leave and when they’re gone. 

Sometimes a dog is scratching at the door not because of a separation issue but because of something outside the door. That’s going to be treated differently than if the dog is scratching at the door for separation-related reasons. 

Figuring out what’s causing the problem, and what the dog is trying to accomplish with the behavior, is super important. You need to know what you’re trying to treat first.

My pet never had separation issues before, but I just spent a year working from home. Could they have problems when I go back to work?

We don’t yet know why some animals are predisposed to separation issues and others are not, but pets certainly can get out of the practice of being alone. If the owner has spent a significant amount of time at home and then they’re suddenly going back to work for eight to ten hours a day, the pet can absolutely have a problem.

If they do show signs of an issue now, the treatment process is basically going to be the same. You may have a different prognosis, or it may be harder for some cases to get under control, but the process is going to be very similar.

How can I tell if my new young cat’s behavior—jumping off things, getting into plants, climbing the drapes—is normal youthful exuberance or anxiety?

You have to look at the body language and what the cat is doing. I would expect a one-year-old, especially an indoor kitten, to get kitten zoomies just like puppies do when they get excited. They get into a play mode where they race around the house and attack things, but that isn’t necessarily anxiety.

Look at their body language: how big their pupils are, if their hair or tail is puffed up, if there’s any hissing or crawling, or if they just look excited and energetic while running around.

My pet is food-obsessed. Did I create this monster? What can I do?

You know, everybody’s definition of food-obsessed is going to vary a little bit, but there are a number of medical conditions or gastrointestinal problems that can make an animal seem excessively interested in food. If I had a pet showing that behavior, the first thing I would do is make sure that it had a veterinary exam, and the owner gave the vet a good history about the progression of the problem and any medications that could be causing it. 

If it isn’t medical, look at the pet’s pattern of behavior. Maybe they’re acting food-obsessed because they’re underweight and actually not being fed enough. Maybe the ritual of feeding has become the only highlight of the pet’s day. They may be acting like they’re hungry all the time to get the owner to go through the process of feeding because of the interaction they get. Maybe there’s a monster, but maybe not.

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