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Pandemic Puppies Face Separation Anxiety As Their Owners Go Back To Work


During the pandemic, many people - numbers on this vary - adopted pets to help them get through the day. Now those very same people are going back to work. So who is more anxious about this, us or our pets? Here's Savannah Sicurella.

SAVANNAH SICURELLA, BYLINE: When Melissa Alm returned to the office two months ago, her Chihuahua-dachshund mix would scream at the door when she left for work.

MELISSA ALM: He would do this really high-pitched yelp. Like, everybody in my apartment complex could hear him (imitating dog) like this yiping (ph).


SICURELLA: She's had Ivan for quite some time, and he's always been a big ball of anxiety. But this yelping devastated her as she left the house every day. And at work, she couldn't stop worrying about him. It was almost as if he passed his stress onto her.

ALM: I'm constantly worried about, you know, his health and his psyche and, you know, is he going to be OK?

SICURELLA: In the past year, a lot of Americans adopted pets, and owners got to spend a lot of time with them, one of the few bright spots of the pandemic. They've started asking veterinarians how to make the transition easier on their animals. They're even using pets as a reason to continue working remotely. Jessica Abernathy is the president of the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters.

JESSICA ABERNATHY: I feel for everybody that adopted a pet during the pandemic and has to go back to work because it's almost the equivalent of having a newborn child, and after your maternity leave is up, you have to go back to work. And so that anxiety of going back to work - and it's like, is my baby OK?

SICURELLA: Abernathy says her customers are constantly calling and texting to check in on how the pets are doing and how they're behaving. They're usually fine, she says, relieved even to be in the company of someone else.

ABERNATHY: Fido would absolutely love to take a nap with nobody around.

SICURELLA: But separation anxiety in animals isn't a made-up thing. It's very real, especially for those that were adopted during the thick of the pandemic who never had much socialization or those who suddenly got to spend a lot more time with their owners. Here's Jill Goldman, who specializes in animal behavioral therapy.

JILL GOLDMAN: The abrupt change in the owner's schedule can trigger stress and anxiety because it's a new thing that the animal now has to deal with.

SICURELLA: Goldman has seen pets pacing excessively and destroying household items. And sometimes they're just mopey, like Cody (ph). He's a mutt that lives with Johns Hopkins University professor Adam Charles. He recently went back to work.

ADAM CHARLES: He stopped eating his breakfast. Like, he was nervous in the morning that we were all going to leave him.

SICURELLA: Owners shouldn't be too concerned about separation anxiety. Goldman, the animal behaviorist, says it can be corrected with time. Owners can gradually increase time away from pets to help them cope with their absences. And some might now have the opportunity to correct that behavior as the latest COVID surge has delayed many office reopening plans. As for Professor Charles, who teaches biomedical engineering, he offers a completely whimsical and unscientific theory - maybe dogs might be orchestrating the whole thing.

CHARLES: Somewhere, the dogs are all so sad that we're starting to go back to the office that they're trying to find a way to keep us home with them and, you know, keep their time with us. And so they're developing all these variants to try to, you know, reinstitute the shutdown, keep us all home with them so that they can have their midday walks five times a day with (laughter) their favorite people.

SICURELLA: The jury's still out on that one.

For NPR News, I'm Savannah Sicurella.


Savannah Sicurella