ALBANY – Kittens on the keyboard. Puppy eyes staring up. Barks and meows and demands for treats.
For many pet owners, that’s all been part of a normal work day since COVID-19 led employers to ask employees to work from home some 15 months ago.
Now, as employers are calling workers back to their offices, pet owners need to prepare their four-legged friends for what could be a dramatic change for animals that are very much creatures of habit, experts say.
“What’s happened is they have gotten so used to people being home all the time that that’s now their new structure,” said Nancy Haynes, the director of behavior and enrichment at the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society on Menands.
In the days leading up a return to the office, Haynes said, pet owners should leave the house, as if going to work, for increasing periods of time every day.
“If you just up and go back to work, five days a week, they’re not going to know what’s happening,” Haynes told the Times Union on Tuesday. “So ideally, if you have the time, you want to acclimate them back up to you working outside the home … The more time you put into it, the more comfortable they feel with you leaving and going.”
Last June, as states and municipalities began to open up following the first phase of the deadly pandemic, the American Veterinary Medical Association, whose membership includes more than 97,000 veterinarians, listed several steps for pet owners to ease the transition.
The AVMA recommended pet owners condition their animals by giving them small treats on their way out the door, so the pets find it rewarding when their owners leave. The association said before owners leave for work,. they should play with their pets and and engage them in exercise to burn energy and relax them. The AVMA recommended automatic feeders, the creation of a safe space (such as a crate for dogs); and suggested a look for any signs of stress, such as excessive barking for dogs, agitation, destructive behavior and urination or potty issues.
Northeast Animal Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla., told pet owners not to underestimate an animal’s ability to notice changes in your daily routine.
“If you normally wear certain clothes for work, carry a particular bag, or give them a special treat before we leave, begin these ‘rituals’ again as we leave for our excursions,” the website of the practice stated. “Our pets’ walks or mealtimes may have been shifted because we were home more. Maybe we slept longer, went on more walks to get out of the house, or maybe we ate dinner later due to quarantine-snacking during the day. Reinstitute your pet’s old walking and meal times. Resist the urge to feed them, take them on a walk, or take them outside to play during hours you will normally be at work.”
The hospital website said not to fret if called back to work on short notice.
“The fact is, whether you have no time to prepare, or two weeks, a significant change to your pet’s schedule still comes with some degree of anxiety for them,” it said. “New pets — whether they be puppies, kittens, or a rescue with a history of separation anxiety — may have the most difficult time with this. Knowing what to look for can help you be proactive and set your pet up for success.”
At Mohawk-Hudson, Haynes explained that it also was a transition when pet owners started to work from home, albeit different depending on whether one’s pet purrs or barks.
“Both animals are creatures of habit and off and appreciate a structured existence,” Haynes said. “But I think dogs are having a more positive reaction to owners being home all the time. Whereas cats, maybe not as positive, because they like their space — and their alone time. So, cats are generally like, ‘Why are you here so much?” And dogs are like, ‘Oh, great. You’re here! So good!’ For both species, I would do your best to have a good routine.”
She said pet owners can use the Mohawk Hudson website to seek advice on any behavioral concerns at: https://mohawkhumane.org/behavior-helpline