In a complex world at this complex time, one of the obviously complicated issues is when-if-how to return to a more out-of-the-house, less socially isolated existence. But what about our animals? For most dogs and cats who find themselves treasured family members, social isolation has actually been reason to celebrate. Sure, there have been really funny videos of dogs desperately hiding from owners seeking the 1,001st walk around the block as one of the few outside activities allowed these past months, but our pets have mostly benefitted from a whole lot of extra attention. You may feel ready to get out of those sweatpants, but your dogs and cats think you look fine. If you think Fido and Fluffy are going to celebrate you heading back to the office, think again. To you, this is a return to normalcy; to them, this is a transition back to something a good deal less entertaining.

“Separation anxiety” is the fancy term for a whole cluster of unhealthy, unwelcome pet behaviors exhibited when animals find themselves separated from the family (pack) upon which they rely for comfort and fun. Some of those behaviors include howling, scratching and digging, house-soiling; at the extremes, this can be full-blown ballistic destruction of the home as well as self-harm from scratching and biting oneself. This column is not about how to treat such problems, but rather about anticipating and hopefully preventing an outbreak as our pets suddenly finds themselves “abandoned” when we walk out that front door for longer than just a quick run to grab takeout.

One “don’t,” several “do’s.” Don’t punish. Your pet is not misbehaving. Your pet is reacting to stress. Do take baby steps. Before you head out for your first full day back at work, start leaving your animal alone at home for short periods, rewarded by walks, treats or love to reward right behaviors. Do offer distractions to help fill the void, like interactive or treat-filled toys to keep a pet busy rather than bored. Do continue long walks for dogs, dedicated playtime and lap-time for cats, especially before leaving for the day. Remember who kept you sane when you were confined at home? It’s time to return the favor!

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