COVID-Related Separation Anxiety When Returning to the Workplace

COVID-Related Separation Anxiety When Returning to the Workplace

Amber Johnson-Drake

COVID has had an impact on all of us including our pets. For us, staying home meant a substantial reduction in our interactions with other people. Our pets, on the other hand, likely gained a significant amount of socialization time. They undoubtedly embraced the extra time and attention they received as a result of our increased presence at home. However, when pet owners return to work, it's not easy for them to understand why we are no longer able to be around as frequently.


Some of us have the benefit of receiving advance notice of our return to work, which will allow us to assist our pets in adjusting to being alone at home once again. This allows us to wean our pets away from us for a few days—or longer—and ease them back into a routine that more closely resembles “real” life.

Helping Our Pets Adjust


Begin by leaving the house more often and for longer periods of time.  This will help your pet become used to your absence and the fact that you will still return.


Don't undervalue your pet's ability to pick up on and remember things from your everyday life.  Start these routines again when you depart for your excursions. This may include wearing the clothes you would generally wear to work, grabbing a bag you used in your pre-COVID routine, or offering a special treat before you leave the home. Slowly try to transition back to the routine you were in prior to pandemic, or as close to it as you can.


Since we were home more, our pets' walks or mealtimes may have been changed. Maybe we slept in longer, went for more walks to get out of the house, or ate dinner later because we were snacking during the day due to the quarantine. Re-establish your pet's old walking and feeding schedules. During the hours you'll be at work, resist the temptation to feed them, take them for a stroll, or let them play outside (unless absolutely necessary).


If your dog used to sleep in a crate or behind a pet gate when you were gone at work, you may want to try putting them back in there for naps to get them used to not being by your side all day.

Struggling with Separation


As previously mentioned, our pets are capable of understanding our habits and anticipating what will happen next. When we tie our shoes and grab a bottle of water, our dogs can quickly turn and race back and forth between us and the door, signaling that it's time for a stroll. Similarly, packing our lunch, putting on a suit, or taking the time to shave or apply makeup can cause our dog to whine, whimper, pant, or pace. Alternatively, our pet may appear sad and lie at our feet.


These are common symptoms of anxiety and stress. We may hear them begin to bark (or meow- although cats tend to be more independent) as we close the door, begin scratching at the door in an attempt to escape, see them immediately pawing at the window (keep your windows safe by clicking here) or fighting the blinds, or hear them leap against the closed door. A dog that can't self-soothe—or has too much energy—can show some destructive behavior in addition to tugging at our heartstrings.


Separation anxiety in dogs is well-known, but research indicates that cats, especially those who are extremely attached to their owners, may also experience separation anxiety when left alone for long periods of time. Some cats cope well with brief absences during the day, while others struggle with longer absences such as changes in work or school schedules, vacations, or divorce, and now COVID.


Though it may seem that our dogs or cats are acting out of spite, it's critical to remember they are showing their distress the only way they know how. It's important to understand chewing and breaking blinds, door frames, windowsills, furniture, or personal property is not done out of revenge. These are all characteristic features of severe emotional stress—likely combined with a lot of boredom.

Relieving Stress in our Pets


“A tired dog is a happy dog,” as the saying goes. Helping your dog release pent-up energy is an excellent way to relieve emotional stress while also making them too sleepy to be destructive.  Take them for a long walk or jog before work, or play fetch in the backyard.


Leaving them with interactive puzzle toys or a fresh and exciting chew toy will help them become more independent while still keeping them occupied. Avoid leaving them with a chew toy that can split into small bits, posing a choking threat or obstructing their digestive system. If letting your pet wander the house freely isn't working, consider putting them in a crate. A crate, rather than being a jail, serves as a “den” for your dog, providing a safe and protected space.


As far as our cats go, we can also help them relieve separation anxiety by adding some items they will enjoy. While you're gone, leave favorite toys, particularly interactive ones, out for play. Elevated vertical spaces, such as cat trees, window perches, and shelving, should be provided. Some cats prefer hiding places such as bins, caves, and tent beds. For added interest, hang a bird feeder outside the window or switch on the television.

Final Thoughts


The first week back to work will undoubtedly be the most difficult, but when your and your pet's "new" routines become old habits again, you will both feel more at ease with the changes. Following the advice in this article will significantly reduce your pet's discomfort when their routine is disrupted. Let us be extra mindful of the needs of our furry best friends when we return to the 9 to 5 world and do whatever we can to make the transition a successful one.