While one of the most enjoyable experiences of working from home throughout the COVID-19 pandemic may be the extra time you’ve spent with your cats, the downside may be their separation anxiety when you return to work. This is particularly true for cats adopted during the pandemic because they’ve had less time to accustom themselves to their new homes and new routines.
Animal behaviorists are, therefore, encouraging you to start preparing your feline friends NOW to help them adjust to yet another “new normal.”
Set and keep to a consistent schedule: Cats are creatures of habit and are most comfortable with a fixed routine. If you’ve been free-feeding yours during the day, break that habit immediately. Implement or return to regularly scheduled meal times to reinforce their sense of safety and ritual.
Practice leaving them on their own: Leave them alone for brief periods of time by taking a short walk or going for a drive. As their stress levels decrease, gradually increase the amount of time you’re gone until they’ve adjusted completely and appear unperturbed by your absence. On the other hand, if they become excited or anxious when you show signs of leaving – whether it’s putting on your shoes or picking up your keys -- desensitize them by doing this and NOT leaving the house. Repeat the process until they no longer react. But most importantly, resist the temptation to draw out your “good-byes” when you leave and your “hellos” when you return. Being as intuitive as they are, they will automatically react to your tone of voice, body language and overall energy – both positive and negative. Here, calmness is key.
Create a tranquil environment: To reduce their stress levels, consider the benefits of “white noise” such as the TV, classical music or a sound machine. Diffusers with pet-appeasing pheromones can also be used to provide them with a greater sense of security. Leave out a well-worn shirt or a cozy blanket with your scent on it for them to curl up on or cuddle.
Keep them stimulated and entertained: Establish a daily play schedule for meaningful interaction with your cats. Have them chase after the laser’s red dot or engage them with various wand toys – activities that help build their confidence and strengthen their bond with you. And be generous with those high-value treats! Ensure that at least one window has a cat tree, perch or bed in front of it to allow them to look out at the world. Then, as you head out the door, put down a puzzle toy for them to work on and hold their attention indefinitely.
If, despite all of these preparations, you believe your cats may be suffering from stress while you’re gone, the most effective way to determine the extent of it is through the use of a home monitor. Capturing their behaviors on tape allows you to work on modifying those behaviors and helps ensure that your cats’ “home alone” environment is as pleasant as paws-ible.