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How to manage your pet's separation anxiety

As pet parents head back to work, after over a year at home, pets are struggling to adjust to this new normal

Ensure certain fundamental things are in place before you leave your pet alone
Ensure certain fundamental things are in place before you leave your pet alone (iStock)

Maria Sandra lost her mother in March last year, around the time the first Covid wave hit. Since then, her dog, Zoe-- a long-haired Dachshund---has refused to leave her side. "She was always around mom," says Sandra, a Bengaluru-based technical account manager, adding that her pet has gotten particularly clingy over the last year or so, following her from room to room, even into the bathroom. And when she steps out for a short duration, Zoe gets highly perturbed. "If I start to comb my hair, she thinks I'm leaving her to go out and lies by my feet," adds Sandra, who believes that her pet is suffering from separation anxiety.

Pet parents, heading back to work after spending over a year at home, are noticing this crop up frequently, especially with dogs, many of whom were adopted during the lockdown. Pets are now so used to having their owners constantly around them that they struggle to adjust to this "new normal". Classical signs of separation anxiety exhibited by pets include the following: disruptive behaviour when left alone; evident agitation when a pet's family prepares to leave the house; escape attempts and vocalisation (howling and barking); lethargy and depression. For example, when Bengaluru-based Sushma Shetty picked up her black Labrador, Carbon, from a friend's place where she had left him for a couple of days, while she and her family took a short holiday, she noticed he had gotten reticent. "He wasn't himself for two days," she remembers, adding that she even thought he was sick. "He was very zoned out." She attributes it to separation anxiety. Carbon was always a needy dog, but it has become more pronounced after the last year, she says.

Saba Poonawala, a Chennai-based canine trainer and animal behaviourist, says that some of this is inevitable. "During the lockdown, people have picked up dogs without thinking it through properly," says the founder of the Pune-Chennai Dog Training Academy, pointing out that bringing home an animal isn't a lockdown distraction but a 10 to 15-year-long commitment. "I've had people say that they couldn't sit at home anymore; we bought a dog so that we can go for a walk," she adds. Additionally, where you get your pet from may also predispose it to separation anxiety. "A puppy needs to be with its mother for two months," points out Poonawala. Unfortunately, many breeders do not adhere to this norm, often separating a puppy from its mother at under thirty days; a first-time pet parent may not be able to tell. This early trauma, she points out, could manifest as full-blown separation anxiety that can persist till the life of the dog, says Poonawala. "People don't get that." The result, of course, is that the animal suffers and terribly. "I have noticed a huge increase in cases (of pet separation anxiety) recently," she confirms.

So what can you, as a conscientious pet parent, do to manage your pet's anxiety? Sheldon Pinto, the owner of Pets Sutra, a Mumbai-based pet store and a pet parent himself, says dogs need to be eased into it. "You need to start this process in a very gradual manner," he says. For instance, you can start by leaving the dog alone for ten minutes, ensuring that you are within hearing distance so that you can respond to extreme distress if needed. After this, you have to connect or reunite with the dog, stresses Pinto, adding that one needs to build up a pet's trust slowly. "Depending on the first experience, you can start leaving the pup for twenty minutes, then half an hour and so on," says Pinto, who managed to train his own pup--a Doberman called Zorro—to stay alone for around five hours. "I have reached that stage," says Pinto, who took about three months to get there.

When you leave a pet alone at home, especially if it is for a more extended period—anything over 8 hours is too much, in general—ensure that some fundamental things are in place. Ramya Gowda, the founder of Furry Fairy, a Bengaluru-based brand offering pet grooming and vacation boarding, lists out some of the things you need to do before leaving the house. "Safety is the most important thing: ensure that everything dangerous is put away, including some toys that can choke your pet," she says. Instead, leave safe toys, food and enough water, she says. Some gentle music or turning the television on could also help calm your pet. Exercising your dog thoroughly before you leave him alone is also essential, says Poonawala, adding that if all else fails, a vet's visit may need to be planned. "Your dog may need a medication to calm down," she says. "You have to visit a vet and figure it out."

Sandra, too, is still figuring out what she will do once offices begin to reopen. "I'm checking on the feasibility of a hybrid work environment or a WFH option," she says, adding, "I'm not married, nor do I have any kids, so continuing to work from home is going to be for my pet's sake."

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