Photo: Jaromir Chalabala/ Shutterstock.com
In early February, I boarded a flight from Bhopal to Pune for the first time in more than 10 months. While I was pretty nervous about travelling post lockdown, I didn’t factor in the anxiety that my eight-year-old labrador would be experiencing due to this temporary separation. At the sight of packed suitcases, she began showing signs of distress: drooling, panting and obsessive grooming. Considering that she barely lifted her head as I waved goodbye to her before leaving for trips earlier, her response completely baffled me. Turns out, I wasn’t the only pet parent dealing with this situation.
Puja Peyden Tshering and Dev Toor, a Bengaluru-based couple who inhabit a multi-pet household, adopted Zelda, a 1.5-year-old Indie just before the lockdown was announced. “Initially, we didn’t think leaving Zelda at home would be an issue because she’d become familiar with Bow Wow (our older dog). But the first time we stepped out, we could hear her howling five floors down. When we got back, she had destroyed some of our furniture and ripped an empty cardboard box. She hadn’t even touched her treat.”
The lockdown ensured that pets became accustomed to seeing their parents 24/7. And now, with humans stepping out more often, it is leading to a lot of stress for their pets. The term ‘Pet Separation Anxiety’ is used for the “behaviour that the pet exhibits whenever he or she is left alone or isn’t able to see his/her owner around. The symptoms vary but howling or crying and refusing to settle down or even eat are some of them,” says Dr Jasleen Kaur, founder, Allvet Pet Clinic in Hyderabad. Dogs are essentially creatures of routine and when the routine is disrupted, it can lead to problematic behaviours. Dr Kaur adds, “In my practice, the cases of separation anxiety have definitely doubled in the past year. Separation anxiety can manifest as depression. We often see depressed pets with reduced appetite. They aren’t very interested in playing or taking part in their regular activities. It can really affect their mental health which in turn affects their overall health.”
Who let the parents out?
It was also during lockdown that some well-meaning folks welcomed a dog into their homes for the first time. According to a PTI report, “Puppy adoption rates went up by 50-100 percent in 2020.” For such people, travelling is now proving to be a challenge, as their pets have never not been around them. Meera Nair and Akshar Pathak adopted their now-Insta-famous Bisckoo in June 2020. The very first time they had to leave him at home, they set up a camera (more for them to not miss him) at home. “We started with leaving him for 15-20 minutes. He kept howling all the while we were away. Eventually, he was okay when we had to leave him for three hours. Once we moved to the new house, we tried leaving him alone again. The first time we stepped out was to meet a friend 10 minutes away. We saw him cry through the camera and called the friend over instead,” explains Meera.
Veteran pet parents have been struggling too. Delhi-resident Jaishree Kumar took her 1.5-year-old lab on a long road trip to avoid any long separation, but even when she had to leave him at a relative’s place for an hour to visit a temple, he barked the house down.
Don’t be alarmed just yet. Mumbai-based pet behaviourist Malaika Fernandez, says these exaggerated reactions are perfectly normal for a pet. “All you need is patience. Allow your dog to practice behaviours—such as sniffing and chewing—that comes naturally to them. This helps them cope better with the stress levels they encounter.” Fernandez suggests some activities to get them comfortable: “If you have the time and inclination, you can get innovative with tasks such as a simple treasure hunt for treats on a lawn, a puzzle they can solve in the quiet, or even giving them safe things to shred and chew.” You can also try reassuring your dog with appropriate body language such as a soft show of the palm of the hand when you see them getting anxious. This will need to be used as and when required and will need to be developed for the dog to understand that the body language serves to reassure them, suggests Fernandez.
Our pets have done a great job of keeping us company in a decidedly odd year, but as things return to normalcy, Fernandez suggests speaking to a dog behaviourist who can help formulate a plan to deal with separation anxiety. According to Dr Kaur, behaviour management is the way forward, but it requires a lot of patience and experience. “Medicines can help in some cases but aren’t a permanent solution unless behaviour management fails or isn’t possible,” she adds. Here is one way she suggests that can help your dog with the transition: “We always advise new pet parents to get their pets used to being alone. Start with leaving them in a different room for 10-15 minutes and gradually increasing that time. Once the pet gets used to it, you can start leaving the pet at home and go down for a small walk. It’s a good idea to do this when you feed your pet so that he/she is distracted by food. You can also try playing some music in the background or leaving the TV on in the background. This is a very slow process and needs a lot of patience and time from the pet parents’ side.”