If you've worked from home during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, you -- or your employer -- might be ready to get back into the "work in person" groove. But your pets might have to get used to the idea first.
"As restrictions lift and life slowly returns to normal, your pet may be left confused and lonely," says Sydney Bartson Queen, a senior manager on the ASPCA Behavioral Sciences Team. "Once our regular work routines and other activities commence again, your dog or cat may be left wondering why everyone is rushing out the door instead of spending time at home."
Pets Get Anxious, Too
Before you return to work, check your pet for emotional distress."Be sure to look out for signs of anxiety such as nervous pacing and panting, a change in body posture and body language -- tense, low tail, ears back, furrowed brow and/or eyes wide -- trembling, vocalizing or whining, or trying to leave with you as you prepare to depart," Queen says.
How your pet acts when you leave the house is a major tip-off, too."While you're gone, anxious pets may soil in the house or engage in destructive behavior," Queen says. A certified applied animal behaviorist, vet, veterinary behaviorist, or certified professional dog trainer can help you and your pet work through the stress.
"While the family is away for longer periods of time during the day, you want to have your pets feeling safe and secure at home," she says.
Ease Them Into Your Absence
A sudden dip in family time can be tough for pets, even more so if they've gotten used to having their humans with them around the clock. Queen suggests you let your pet "practice" with shorter periods of time alone every day. Slowly increase the length of time so they'll get used to being solo for longer stretches. "For example, they stay home while you go for a stroll or do some yard work, so the transition is notabrupt and stressful."
Lynn Morrison, PhD, an anthropology professor at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, has decided to work from home at least 2 days a week to teach an online class this fall, but "mostly to be with the animals," she says. She and her son have four cats and three dogs, and foster many others through their volunteer work with the county humane society and an animal sanctuary nearby.
Being part of the family is deeply important to your pet. As the pandemic unfolded, many people took the chance to adopt a dog or cat for company and because they had more time. But with outside life opening up again, Morrison's noticed an increase in the number of animals at shelters.
"I think for a lot of people who have animals, it's a convenience," she says. "They don't fully integrate them as family members." She notes dogs are returned more than cats, perhaps because cats are easier to care for.
Set a New Routine
There are lots of ways to help pets adapt to your absence during the workday. "Consider what your back-to-work or back-to-the-office day might look like, and start transitioning your schedule to look more like this so your pet can begin getting used to a new walking, feeding, napping, and playing schedule," Queen suggests. "Try to mimic what your pet's schedule will look like on a typical work or school day, each day."
Be sure not to skimp too much on exercise time in the new routine, though. "Ramping down that exercise and interaction due to schedule changes could leave your pet with pent-up energy," Queen says. If you find your dog really needs that midday romp, think about hiring a dog walker to come by a few times a week.
Morrison plans to bring back her former morning routine with her son when he goes back to school. They drive halfway to the school, park, and run with their dogs the rest of the way, about half a mile. Then Morrison takes the animals home and heads to work.
Keep Them Busy
"Rotate your dog's toys to help to keep them novel and provide enrichment for them," Queen says. "Interactive toys or healthy chews can help keep your dog active and engaged while you are gone. Toys stuffed with your dog's favorite food (peanut butter, canned food, yogurt, to name a few) and then frozen can soothe them and keep them busy." Many safe, tasty chew items line the pet store shelves, "so many that you can offer a different one every day of the week."
Dogs and cats used to household noise and having people around can be soothed with music or the TV -- even channels designed just for them. "Auditory or visual stimulations can help keep your pet engaged when you're not at home," Queen says.
Some people go so far as to bring in company for their pet. "One of the things people are concerned about is the loneliness of their pets, so they get a pet for their pet," Morrison says. "It's a little bit surprising, but I'm glad people are thinking that way. Some people are considering a cat for their dog, or a cat for their cat."
Take Your Pet to Work
Morrison wants to bring a dog to work with her on "in person" days if her employer will allow it. Under the right conditions, having animals at work can be therapeutic. "Some people who have more flexible work environments are thinking of taking their dogs to work, especially if they're mellow dogs," she says.
Morrison thinks about other people's pets, too. For example, she's long had an "open door" policy for animals on campus. She keeps a pet carpet and water bowl in both her classroom and her office.
Of course, not all workplaces -- and people -- are suited for pets to share space. Morrison welcomes pets who appear in Zoom meetings from her students' homes, too. "I encourage students to include their animals in class," she says. "I love seeing tails going by the screen, dogs jumping on laps, kitties jumping on laps."
The pandemic experience has shown many students how much they benefit from being around their pets, Morrison notes. "They're seeing a side to their animals' lives that they really didn't know were there."