Picture this: you leave home in the morning to go to work. You then head back home, excited to relax after a long day. When you open the door, however, you are faced with the disastrous sight of your belongings strewn across the floor, knocked over plants with missing leaves and your beloved pet laying coolly amidst it all.
For many pet owners, this nightmarish scenario can unfortunately be a frequent reality. When pets are left alone for extended periods of time, they may begin to exhibit signs of stress and anxiety, which causes them to act out in unexpected ways.
“When an animal goes from having nearly constant supervision to being left alone for long periods of time, they can become very stressed,” says Jill Swain, owner of Creature Comforts of Columbia, a professional in-home pet care service, in an email. “Depending on the age, energy level and species, their response can vary greatly.”
As Columbia reopens and people return to work, school and other priorities, many pets are being left alone for longer periods of time. This can cause behavioral issues, such as separation anxiety, in both cats and dogs. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, separation anxiety is when dogs become upset or distressed due to separation from their owner, although cats are known to suffer from it as well.
“For cats, stress can cause various behavior issues from going to the bathroom outside of the litter box to aggression," Swain says. "Cats’ enrichment needs are often overlooked as many cat owners think that all they need is a big bowl of food, water and a clean litter box. Once, a 10-month-old kitten named Louie got his leg wedged in a computer chair, requiring a trip to the ER to save his leg.”
Common symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs include urinating, defecating, barking, pacing, escaping, chewing, digging and general destruction. Swain says changing your schedule to enrich your dog mentally with more exercise might be the key to resolving some of these issues. For more severe cases, Swain says it is critical to work on a plan with your veterinarian and seek professional training to ameliorate these behaviors.
Just ask pet veteran Cris Wood, known best for his local celebrity Great Pyrenees Harlan and Harry. He’s cleaned up his fair share of messes from the five dogs he and his wife have shared throughout the years.
“My wife got a book of pictures one time that our son gave her, but she just left it laying out in the downstairs where the dogs were hanging out, and Chester, my second one, took the book, opened it up, and started biting and tearing the pages,” Wood says. “I have different things over the years that I look at now and then realize, ‘Oh yeah, that dog chewed that up!’”
Although he is no stranger to destruction and chewing, Wood keeps an even head by reminding himself that his pets are not to blame for their behaviors — he is. “I heard one time they said when your dog tears something up that you’ve left out, you take a newspaper and you roll it up and then you’re supposed to hit yourself on the head and say, ‘Bad human! Bad human,’ because it’s your fault,” Wood says.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, punishing your animals for their misbehavior, especially when it's caused by stress, only aggravates the problem. Instead, try creating a safe space with toys and familiar scents, leaving your pet with a friend or family member, asking your veterinarian about drug therapy or buying busy toys that can distract your pet.
“One simple change you can make to your cat's life is to remove their free access to food and make them 'work' for their meals by feeding out of interactive puzzle feeders,” Swain says.
Wood says the kind of litter you buy can play a huge role in a cat's behavior, as smell crystals included in popular litter brands can irritate and deter cats from using their box or cleaning it regularly. He also recommends pet-proofing your home before starting a new schedule.
For pet owners who are currently struggling with being away from their pets, the key is to be consistent and never give up. Ensuring your pet’s comfort and helping them feel more secure when they’re alone will likely benefit both of you.
“Someday, you’ll be retired and you’ll be able to focus all your attention on your pets,” Wood says, beaming down at a panting Harlan. “Be patient.”