As workers return to the office, humans and pets will have to adjust

·7 min read

May 15—When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, Kayla Durdan began working from home in East Hartford while her fiance continued with his regular second shift as a fiber optic technician in East Granby.

This did not sit well with the couple's pitbull Labrador mix, Deebo, who began having separation anxiety when the household routine altered and Nick Romitti tried to get ready for work.

An hour before he leaves, Romitti said Deebo starts panting and breathing heavily, drooling, running anxiously all around him, and even tries to block him from leaving through the door.

RELIEVING SEPARATION ANXIETY

FOR CATS: Provide plenty of activities, including puzzle feeders, perches, toys, etc.; Engage in daily play sessions; Practice leaving and not making a big production of it.

FOR DOGS: Create a cozy place for your dog to spend time away from the family, such as a dog bed or crate; Say goodbye as if you are leaving the house and offer your dog a favorite treat such as a toy or bones; Leave the house for short periods of time before going back to work to get your dog accustomed; Develop a routine to mimic your work or school schedule in advance; Get your dog accustomed to having his or her walks and meals after work or school hours; Provide exercise for your dog before leaving for the day; Enroll your dog in training where they can learn other methods to combat anxiety.

"He wants everybody together," Durdan said.

Romitti said he feels awful parting with Deebo, and most days resorts to leaving for work 20 minutes early so he can take a moment of what Durdan calls "Zen" in the company parking lot.

It's a problem that many people who've adopted pets during the pandemic will experience as they get vaccinated and return to their workplaces, leaving young fur babies behind, animal experts say.

Officials with pet rescue organizations, the Connecticut Humane Society, and local dog trainers say separation anxiety is a bigger problem now than before the pandemic, leading to destructive behaviors for some dogs, such as chewing and destroying furniture, or even an increase in dog bites of children. While mainly a problem for dogs, cats are not immune to feeling anxious when their humans suddenly leave for long periods, experts say.

"They are used to having people in the house and not used to going places and interacting in ways they used to," said Marie Joyner, Canine operations manager for Our Companion Animal Rescue in Manchester. "Some of the dogs have become very demanding and bratty because you are around all the time and available to fulfill their needs."

But experts say there are tools owners can use to help their animals acclimate to a life of not seeing them regularly, from planning trips outside the home without their animals before resuming a return back to the office full-time, and providing stimulating games and toys to keep their pets busy when owners are away.

While pet rescue experts say the number of animals brought to shelters has gone down or been steady during the pandemic, they have seen double the number of applications for adoptions and not enough animals to keep up with the demand.

However, pet rescue experts point to a new worrisome trend — dog owners surrendering their pets as they head back into the office. They're also concerned about socializing animals disconnected from the rest of society for over a year.

Separation anxiety

The Durdans adopted Deebo when he was seven months old just before the pandemic struck after his previous owner surrendered him to a New Britain pound, and then turned him over to Woof Gang Rescue, a dog rescue organization in Manchester.

In May 2020, after Kayla had started working from home, they adopted Ellie, a one-year-old Sloughi and Whippet mix when a friend moved and could not take the dog with them. Ellie hasn't exhibited the same separation anxiety issues as Deebo, Kayla explained, because the household routine hasn't really changed since she joined the family.

While cats adjust much easier to not seeing their owners regularly, they can feel anxiety over separation too, said Karen Aseltine, sanctuary feline behavior and medical manager for Our Companions Animal Rescue.

"Cats rely on our companionship and are social animals," Aseltine said. "They are not as independent as people always want to believe and do of course form bonds with their" owners.

Signs of separation anxiety include excessive meowing and urinating or defecating outside their litter box, Aseltine said.

Ways to alleviate that anxiety in cats include making sure the cat has plenty of things to do to keep them occupied when you are gone such as puzzle feeders and toys. It is also important to not make a production of leaving and sometimes even practicing leaving so you are changing up the cues that cats observe when you are getting ready to go, she added.

For dogs, there are similar recommendations.

"My big thing is especially whether you have a dog you had before the pandemic or after, you have to ensure they understand the concept of you leaving the house," said Kelsey Deutsch, owner of the training and boarding company Logically Canine. "If you take a 10-15 minute drive, crate them and it is important to do that once or twice a day to get that concept instilled into the routine of things."

Kayla said Deebo is working with a dog trainer, which is helping him to learn obedience commands, including using a special training collar worn higher on the neck that is used for correction and does not hurt the dog.

This has helped him especially, she added.

Worrisome trend

In the last year since the pandemic began, the Connecticut Humane Society reported a decline in intake that resulted in a decline in adoptions. Our Companion Animal Rescue and Woof Gang Animal Rescue reported that adoptions were steady throughout the year with double the number of applications for each animal.

In 2019, 2,836 animals were adopted compared to 1,391 in 2020, Connecticut Humane Society data shows.

James Bias, executive director of the Connecticut Humane Society, said the pandemic has contributed to keeping pets home with their families, as they view them as emotional life preservers and have the commitment of being home to work through any issues with their animals.

Susan Linker, chief executive officer of Our Companions Animal Rescue, said the number of adoption applications to her organization doubled during the pandemic.

Sadie Bride, president of Woof Gang Rescue, said adoptions there have been steady, numbering about 100 a year. But the number of applications exploded, with up to 20 for one dog.

Robin Bond, community services officer for the Tyler Regional Animal Care Shelter, in South Windsor, said that dog licenses aren't a good determination of whether animals are being adopted because many people don't bother to register their animals.

Yet in her 15 years working as a community services officer, Bond said she has never seen the shelter so empty with just five dogs this week in the canine section of the kennel. Typically there's around 15.

But officials are not complacent and are concerned about a possible trend of more dogs being surrendered as more people stop working remotely from home.

Bride said she expects the organization will see an uptick in such calls.

"We recently took a puppy an owner surrendered one year after the pandemic," she said.

Linker also has concerns, adding that she has seen more dog bites in the home, particularly involving children, because they have been home more leading to stressful situations.

If dogs and their owners aren't trained to alleviate separation anxiety, Linker said she is concerned that down the road, those dogs are going to wind up in shelters with more behavioral issues.

For more coverage of East Hartford and South Windsor, follow Olivia Regen on Twitter: @OliviaRegen, Facebook: Olivia Regen JI, and Instagram: @ORegenJI.

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