As coronavirus restrictions continue to ease across the UK, many of us are looking forward to getting out of the house and returning to some kind of normality.
But for those with pets at home, the easing of lockdown could mean a big change for furry friends who have got rather used to having their owners around more.
With many people struggling with loneliness throughout the successive lockdowns, pets have played a vital company-keeping role throughout the pandemic, but vet charity PDSA has warned that many could now suffer with separation anxiety as normal life starts to resume.
Last September, the British Veterinary Association (BVA) reported a rise in cases of “emotional illness” in pets left on their own, which can involve howling and chewing the furniture.
The RSPCA also previously revealed that 7 million dogs in the UK find being away from their owners difficult, so there are fears the problem could worsen as restrictions ease and people head back to work.
It's something pet owners are particularly concerned about.
A survey of 1,500 'lockdown' puppy owners, by Agria Pet Insurance revealed one in four are concerned being a pet parent will become more difficult as life begins to return to normal.
Anxiety over how day-to-day changes will affect their dog is felt by one in three owners, with biggest fears including feelings of guilt over leaving their dog by themselves and worries that their dog will not cope being on their own.
“Dogs are social animals and some of them can become extremely anxious and distressed when they’re away from their owner or left alone – this is called separation anxiety," explains PDSA vet Anna Ewers Clark.
"Over time it can become a serious behavioural issue; some of the signs could include excessive barking and whining, destructive behaviour, attempts to escape, pacing and going to the toilet in the house."
According to Carolyn Menteith, behaviour and training advisor for Agria Pet Insurance, separation-related behaviour problems occur when the dog doesn’t have the coping skills to be on their own or without their owner.
"This isn’t them being disobedient or punishing their owner for leaving them - it is much more like a human panic attack. Involuntary and highly distressing," she explains.
"Every instinct in their body tells them that being alone is a source of anxiety or fear - because they’ve never been taught that it is 'safe' and that it’s just part of the life of a companion dog."
The Dogs Trust agree that a rise in separation anxiety in dogs who haven’t been left alone during the pandemic is a particular concern.
“It’s safe to say life has not been normal for many of our dogs for the majority of the past year," says Rachel Casey, director of canine behaviour and research at the charity.
"They've had less interactions with other dogs, fewer visitors coming into the home and they haven’t spent much time alone since the pandemic began."
While the roadmap out of lockdown has us yearning for dog walks with friends and a return to taking our pooches to the pub, our pets need to be able to cope with all that.
“A return to normal could be confusing for our dogs, especially puppies acquired during the pandemic who won’t have had these early life experiences," Casey continues.
Casey also has concerns about what the long-term impact of lockdown will have on dogs’ ability to cope when left home alone.
"Dogs that had separation anxiety before the lockdown are likely to get worse when left again as owners head back to work – but we also expect to see new cases developing, because other dogs, and particularly puppies, have learnt to expect company all day," she explains.
"If they expect us to be about all the time, it will be more difficult for them to cope once we eventually go back to our normal lives and aren’t in the house 24/7."
The good news is, however, you can prepare your pets to be able to cope when life gets back to normal.
Watch: Human foods dogs can safely enjoy.
Tips for preventing dog separation anxiety post-lockdown
Get your dog used to being on their own
Casey suggests factoring in time apart from your dog each day to help them be able to cope when alone. "This could be being separated from you by a door or child gate for an hour or two whilst you’re working," she explains.
"By organising your dog’s day to gradually increasing time apart, as well as play times, exercise, other activity sessions like giving them a food filled toy, and quiet times, you can make sure that your dog is able to settle on their own and help prepare them for the different aspects of ‘normal’ life when we get back to it."
Ewers Clark adds: "As a general rule, you shouldn’t leave your dog alone for longer than four hours at a time.
"Make sure your dog has been for a good walk to tire them out before you leave them alone. This will help them to settle and rest while you’re away."
Get back into a routine
Routine can be really important for pets. "Start getting up and going to bed at the normal time you would if you were going to work and keep their feeding, play and walk times as similar as possible to your working week," suggests Ewers Clark.
Get them used to travelling again
While lots of us have enjoyed avoiding long car journeys while we "stay local", it’s important to get your pets used to the car again, especially if you’re planning on a staycation this summer. "Start with small journeys and see how your pet reacts, then gradually build up as long as they’re happy," Ewers Clark suggests.
Keep calm when leaving the house
When you do have to go out, try to prepare in advance so you’re not rushing, which can cause stress for your dog as well as you.
"Always leave your dog calmly and don’t get them excited before you go," says Ewers Clark. "It may feel strange not to say goodbye to your dog when you go, but leaving without a fuss allows your dog to settle more quickly. When you come home do this calmly and quietly too."
Leave them safe activities
When your dog needs to be left alone for a few hours, Ewers Clark says there are things you can do to help stop them getting bored or worried. "Leave safe ‘activities’ such as destruction boxes for them to play with, as well as interactive toys and indestructible chew toys to help keep them busy while they’re waiting for you to get home," she says.
Create a relaxing environment
Make their bed cosy and secure in a quiet area in your home and encourage them to spend time there even while you’re at home with them. "You can leave an old item of clothing out with your scent on. Plug-in diffusers or a collar that releases natural calming pheromones can help too," Ewers Clark adds.
Seek extra help
If your pet is still struggling with being separated it's worth seeking professional help.
"Severe cases of separation anxiety in dogs can be distressing for you and your dog and may require professional help, so the earlier you begin preparing the better they will manage when our normal routines resume,” explains Ewers Clark.
If you are at all worried that your dog might not be happy when you leave, Menteith suggests using a webcam to find out what they are doing when you are not there.
"If they show any signs of separation-related behaviours (vocalisation, pacing, panting, salivating, scratching at doors, destruction or chewing, loss of toilet training, inability to eat when alone, aggression (on your return, on leaving, or generally), consult an accredited behaviour professional with experience in separation anxieties for help," she suggests. "These problems do not go away on their own."
For more information about Dogs Trust Dog School and to book your dog or puppy onto a virtual set of training classes, visit Dogs Trust Dog School. Online training videos can also be found on the charity's website.