An illustration of a lonely dog in a chair by a window.

‘Ruff Going’ with Your Pandemic Pup? A Big Red Vet Has Answers

As dog owners begin to return to the office, Dr. Pamela Perry helps canines (and humans) adjust to a new normal

CALS alum Pamela Perry ’85, DVM ’89, PhD ’11, is completing her residency in behavior at the College of Veterinary Medicine. Cornellians asked her for insights into how the shift back to in-person work and regular office hours might affect our furry friends, and how to ease the transition.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many dogs have gotten used to their owners being home all day. When their people go back to work full time, could it cause behavior problems?

That’s the big question. Research and experience tell us we will see an uptick in separation anxiety cases. Most dogs are very social and attached to humans; if they get used to us being around 24/7 and we’re suddenly not there, it can be very distressing for them. I think most will adjust, though they may not like it as well. But the concern is that some will not be able to cope.  

Dr. Pamela Perry with a black and white dog.
Dr. Pamela Perry with a canine companion. (Photo provided)

How can owners best prepare their dogs for their return to work?

My main recommendation is to prepare them for it gradually. Do what we call “graduated departures”—go on more outings without the dog, starting out short and then for longer and longer periods of time. That will help transition the dog to being home alone.

What other steps can owners take?

I’m a huge proponent of enrichment. The more dogs are engaged with something—such as chewing on a frozen Kong toy filled with peanut butter, or having to work to get their breakfast out of a puzzle ball—the less likely they are to worry, “When are they coming back? I don’t have anything to do! What am I going to do?” Keeping them focused on appropriate behaviors can reduce stress when they’re alone.

Short of finding your house trashed or having neighbors complain about whining or barking, how can you know if your dog is miserable when you’re gone?

One of the most useful tools is to monitor them remotely—and with today’s home security cameras, that’s a lot easier than it used to be. Check to see if the dog is pacing, whining, and looking forlorn, especially during the first 30 to 45 minutes after you leave. As you leave for longer periods, watch them closely on the webcam and try to return before the dog gets distressed. That way you can avoid damage to your home or major distress for the animal.

If these dogs weren’t crate trained because everyone was home, is it too late?

No, but for an animal who already has separation anxiety, I don’t recommend it. Some get worse when they’re confined—they feel trapped, which makes them more anxious. They can be destructive, trying to get out of the crate and injuring themselves. If the dog doesn’t have a history of separation anxiety and you want to crate train them, that’s fine. But again, do it gradually. And don’t just crate them when you’re leaving; do it when you’re home. You want the crate to be more a safe area than a place of confinement when they’re left alone—because then the crate becomes an evil thing to them.

Animals who have never been left alone tend to have a more difficult time adapting to, ‘Where is everyone? We used to be one big happy family, and now you’re leaving me?’

There has been much talk about “pandemic pups”—dogs adopted during COVID, because people were home and it seemed the perfect time. Will they face special challenges?

Puppies in particular weren’t able to socialize properly because of the lockdown. And if they miss the sensitive period of socialization between about four and 14 weeks of age—and that entails not only meeting new people and dogs, but also going to new places and having new experiences—they’re going to have a harder time coping with unfamiliar situations. And overall, I do think that animals who have never been left alone tend to have a more difficult time adapting to, “Where is everyone? We used to be one big happy family, and now you’re leaving me?”

What about cats? To judge by Internet cartoons, they can’t wait for us to leave them alone.

Some kitties can be stressed by having us home all the time because they don’t get a chance to chill out by themselves. Others, however, enjoy having unlimited access to us; we’re like a 24/7 convenience store for food, play, and attention.

Many people don’t live near a veterinary behaviorist. Can they consult their regular vet on these issues? Could drugs help?

Going to your veterinarian is a great start, to make sure there’s not something else going on; a proper diagnosis is important. And there are two FDA-approved medications for treating separation anxiety in dogs, both of which can be very effective. But you need to do a lot of behavioral management as well. Medications should not be used in isolation, but concurrently with a treatment plan that includes behavioral modification and managing the environment.

Given the potential problems, are you worried there will be a spate of pets surrendered to shelters?

Sadly, that is a concern. It’s these behavior issues that so often put animals into shelters—although most can be addressed and managed. We need to get the word out that there are options and ways to help. That said, people have to be committed, because with behavior issues, it’s not a quick fix. The behavior didn’t start overnight, so we’re not going to fix it overnight.

Any other advice?

Being patient is so important. Remember, animals can be just as stressed as we humans have been. People are happy to finally be getting back to a more normal life pattern—but that may put undue stress on pets. So the more you can prepare, the better.

Top image: Illustration by Cornell University.

Published October 5, 2021


Comments

  1. Lisa Harper

    Hi Dr. Perry!!
    So glad that you are on your way to finishing up animal behavior schooling. I remember that it was a goal of yours. Best wishes for success and happiness.
    Lisa Harper, Penn Yan

  2. Gwendolyn Wollney

    Hi Dr. Perry (Pam),
    Nice article. Congratulations on reaching a further goal. Best of luck,

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