Schererville resident Tiffany Leigh’s chihuahua Millie is generally attached to her, but never more so than during the coronavirus pandemic that has left many people working from home.
They’re basically inseparable now.
“She figured out how to climb onto the back of the couch that’s near the edge of my desk, so she can be as close to me as possible all day,” Leigh said. “I’ve been working from home a little over four months now, and will be at home at least until October. She’s always had separation anxiety, and I know I need to do something to help her phase back into me being gone. But it’s so hard.”
Region residents have been spending a lot more time at home with their pets since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in mid-March and the state imposed a stay-at-home order. They’ve formed stronger emotional bonds with their pooches, become more attuned to their cats, and grown more attached to their puppies, who are after all such good boys. Some have been around their pets nearly 24/7 to the point where their furry friends get extreme separation anxiety when they leave even on a brief jaunt to the grocery store, chewing up furniture and going to the bathroom in the house.
More people bored at home have been buying puppies to keep them company, said Bob Fleming, owner of Landheim Training And Boarding Center in Dyer, which also breeds German shepherd puppies.
“For us there was a big influx,” Fleming said. “We thought the economy’s doing poorly, nobody’s working, but we were just slammed for requests, both for puppies and all of our classes for new dogs. It was a little bit of a phenomenon. People were deciding since they had to spend so much time at home they might as well get a dog.”
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The lockdown also resulted in more people taking their pets to local veterinarians, such as to treat allergies or leg injuries.
“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in care for pets and veterinary medicine, especially during the first three months,” said Dr. Matthew Szalay at Coyne Veterinary Center in Crown Point. “We performed a lot of orthopedic surgeries. People spent more time at home and got sick of watching their dogs limp around all day. Being able to observe their pets more, dog owners are a little more in tune with abnormalities and get them treated earlier.”
That helps lead to better outcomes, Szalay said.
“We would prefer to treat something that’s starting so we can intervene sooner, not something that’s already set on fire,” he said.
Region residents also have been bringing their pets in to the vet for more general health exams.
“The biggest thing is they’re paying more close attention to their pets,” Szalay said. “They notice that a dog is not putting the full weight on a leg. They notice earlier the abnormalities that might be affecting a pet’s quality of life.”
Pets have had it pretty good lately, having grown acclimated to spending more time at home with their owners getting petted and belly-rubbed during an era of social distancing.
“Pets have never been happier,” Szalay said. “One positive of COVID is that it deepens the human-animal bond when people are at home with the pets. Pets are now part of the family and they’re getting a lot more attention.”
It may be a difficult adjustment the first few weeks after they return to the office.
“Separation can cause some bad effects, such as the destruction of household items,” he said. “You could take them to a day care. You can take dogs out for more walks to get their energy out as they get used to the new household structure. If you can, check in on the pet mid-day the first few weeks after you return to work. They were used to a different way of life.”
If necessary, pet owners also could try CBD or go to a vet to get anti-anxiety medication prescribed.
Pet owners should start preparing now by locking their dog up in cages or crates and leaving them alone for awhile to get them used to it, Fleming said.
“Many people haven’t even thought about it yet,” he said. “But you need to prepare them for that return for normalcy.”
He encouraged dog owners to create positive associations with cages by placing their food bowl in there at feeding times, letting them leave whenever they want, and placing their toys in there to pull out.
It’s not necessary to keep them caged up for the full length of a work day, just for long enough to get used to being alone at home.
“Dogs aren’t really good at telling time,” he said. “They don’t know if you’ve been gone for 10 minutes or five hours. They just know you’re not there and they’re home alone.”
Pet owners can use interactive toys to keep their dogs busy while they’re gone, especially balls that dispense treats or let them lick peanut butter if rolled the right way.
“At first you might want to have a family member check in on the dog after your return to work,” he said. “You want to make sure the dog is used to the cage and not biting at it to try to get out. They could bust their teeth.”
A survey by Mira-Pet, which makes ultrasound toothbrushes for dogs, found 26% of Indiana residents fear separation anxiety when they do return to their workplace and spend less time at home. About 73% of those surveyed said their pet helped their mental health during the lockdown, 38% said they would even consider a small pay cut so they could keep working from home with their pet, and that 74% found their animal’s hygiene level was higher.
Only 17% of the survey’s respondents said their pet distracted them from their work, and 65% said they appreciated the companionship the pet provided through a stressful, uncertain time.
But people won’t continue to work from home forever and need to have a plan for a transition that could be ruff.
“Not only will your pet find it difficult to readjust to their human not being around, as a pet owner, you are likely to experience similar feelings of separation anxiety from your warm, compassionate furry friend,” said Stephen Spector, CEO of Techmira Corp, Mira-Pet’s parent company. “To ease the emotional stress you may feel, if you have a housekeeper or loved one who is home during the day, you could ask them to video call you so you can check in on your pet. If you live alone, this option is slightly trickier but not impossible as there are also an abundance of devices available online, such as webcams specifically for your pets.”