Pets may be happier than you expect as Atlantic Canadians head back to normal routines

For many people, being confined to our homes during the COVID-19 pandemic was more bearable because of their pets – furry companions whose welcoming cuddles, tail wags, and comfortable purring just made everything a little bit better.

But now that things are changing, and most of us are leaving our homes more often – either going back to old work routines or just getting out more – what is this doing to our pets?

Rose Browne of Dynamic Canines in St. John’s, NL thinks this change will warrant some extent of adjustment for all pets, but may not necessarily cause them distress.

“Dogs who are used to starting their day at 8 am and heading out for a long walk or outdoor playtime may now need to be woken up earlier and taken out for a shorter walk/playtime,” she says.

Browne even thinks some older pets may be relieved to have more quiet time back into their daily routine, especially if they live in a busy household.

“On average, adult dogs sleep 12-14 hours a day, while young puppies and senior dogs sleep 18-20 hours a day,” she points out.


Dr. Karen L. Overall dogs, Gabriel and Annie, cuddle together.  While returning to pre-COVID activities will likely mean pet owners are away from home more, it might not cause all pets distress.  - Contributed
Dr. Karen L. Overall dogs, Gabriel and Annie, cuddle together. While returning to pre-COVID activities will likely mean pet owners are away from home more, it might not cause all pets distress. – Contributed

A matter of experience?

Dr. Karen L. Overall, a professor at PEI’s Atlantic Veterinary College, says that studies have shown that simply returning to work does not cause dogs to have separation anxiety.

“A number of very well-done studies have shown that the outcome is more nuanced: if your dog or cat had signs of anxiety – whether these signs had been previously recognized or not – they are at risk of showing signs of separation anxiety,” she says.

“Dogs and cats with no prior signs of anxiety are not at increased risk. They may not be thrilled with your absence, but they do not fall apart.”

The same cannot be said, however, for pets who have never been left alone.

During the pandemic, lots of people adopted rescue dogs, Overall points out, and for them, the story may be different.


“”Dogs are often asked to spend a very significant portion of their life alone.”
Sarah McManaman


“The data shows that rescue dogs are over-represented for separation anxiety,” she says.

Many things contribute to these patterns, Overall explains.

“Many of these dogs had difficult lives, were abandoned, had poor nutrition and exposure as puppies, little to no handling by humans, etc. So many of these rescue dogs were damaged and simply taking them into your home and loving them does not fix the damage,” she says.

Sarah McManaman of Sublime Canine Services in Halifax, NS is often asked if separation anxiety is normal in pets. While she thinks it is common, she points out it’s not normal.

“The same way you might speak about reactivity, it is very common to see a reactive dog, but I wouldn’t call it normal. Separation anxiety is a panic disorder and something to take seriously,” McManaman says.



Many dog ​​trainers have reported a rise in requests for private training and behavior issues during the pandemic, she adds.

“What I feel that I am seeing is that during the lockdown, people were being forced to spend far more time with their dogs,” she says.

In some families, a dog may spend eight hours in a crate overnight, eight hours in a crate during the workday, and then during the remaining eight hours, there is laundry, making meals, kids’ soccer games, shopping.

“Dogs are often asked to spend a very significant portion of their life alone,” McManaman says.


“Many dogs went from sleeping for about eight hours a day while people would be at work to now being many people’s focus and source of entertainment, especially in places where you were not allowed to go outside unless it was with a dog.”
Sarah McManaman


“Now that people were spending most of the day at home, they were noticing behaviors that they found problematic that didn’t pop up before truly just because they were too busy to really notice it pop up.”

It also seems there’s been a prevalence of more agitated and/or aggressive dogs, according to Tabea Stawitz of Gentle Paws in Halifax. “To some of my clients, (the dogs) seemed more aggressive. This came from a lot of dogs being sleep-deprived,” she says.

“Many dogs went from sleeping for about eight hours a day while people would be at work to now being many people’s focus and source of entertainment, especially in places where you were not allowed to go outside unless it was with a dog.”

This did settle down when going out was allowed once more, she adds.


Rose Browne of Dynamic Canines in St. John's, NL, says some dogs may be happy to get a little extra rest when their owners return to normal activities.  - Contributed
Rose Browne of Dynamic Canines in St. John’s, NL, says some dogs may be happy to get a little extra rest when their owners return to normal activities. – Contributed

Separation anxiety vs sadness

Browne stresses that saying a pet has separation anxiety is not always accurate.

“Anxiety is anticipation of something fearful happening that causes the dog to be fearful in that context. With true separation anxiety, the dog is extremely fearful (panics) because they are not with someone and the behavior signs are often to the extremes,” she says.

That could include urination, defecation, destruction of kennels or confinement areas, destruction, scratching or biting at doorways (trying to escape), anorexia, salivation, self-injury, and extreme vocalization.


“He cried – wrenchingly – and tried to go or to keep me back when I headed for the car and he watched as I left. But then he was fine.”
Dr. Karen L. Overall


She explains that dogs experiencing isolation distress can display similar behaviors but are usually at a lower level and often improve quickly if the pet parent puts a management plan in place and the dog is used to being independent at times and has a positive association with being in their kennel or confinement area.

“There are differences between a dog who’s not used to being left alone versus a dog who’s so attached to a person/people that they can’t be apart from a person for any length of time,” Browne says.

“These are sometimes referred to as velcro dogs – you literally can’t move without them being with you and they are severely distressed when left on their own.”

Overall thinks sadness is the typical reaction pets have when their owners return to work.

“I think we have failed to separate dogs who experience true pathological distress when we are gone from those who simply do not like being left and would rather go with us – even if they do nothing but sit in the car,” she says.

Dr. Karen L. Overall's dogs Hamilton and Annie enjoy some time in the water.  Overall thinks sadness is the typical reaction pets have when their owners return to work, but suggests that if pet owners see any worrisome behaviors, to contact their vet.  - Contributed
Dr. Karen L. Overall’s dogs Hamilton and Annie enjoy some time in the water. Overall thinks sadness is the typical reaction pets have when their owners return to work, but suggests that if pet owners see any worrisome behaviors, to contact their vet. – Contributed

She has watched her own dogs, Hamilton, Gabriel and Annie, through the process of change.

“My three-year-old, Hamilton, really carried on vocally each day as I was leaving so I paid close attention. He cried – wrenchingly – and tried to go or to keep me back when I headed for the car and he watched as I left. But then he was fine,” she says.

What Hamilton wanted, and still wants, according to Overall, is simply to not have the group split up and to be part of everyone’s daily lives.

cats not immune

What about our purring companions? Known mostly for their aloof nature, it’s easy to assume that cats may not really feel the change when their owners go back to their usual routines of leaving their homes, but Overall cautions otherwise.

“Cats, like dogs, are individuals. I am sure that some cats are simply relieved to have the couch by the window back,” she says.

“I suspect that like dogs, some of these cats will be sad when people are no longer there. Since they are social in a different way from dogs and have a different evolutionary history than do dogs, they will likely miss very different things than dogs will, and may have had their daily schedule less disrupted, simply because they did not allow it to be disrupted.”

But if people find their cats clingy, ripping out their fur, fighting with each other, hiding, not eating, not using the litter box or awake at even weirder hours than was normal for them, be aware, she cautions.


Dr. Karen L. Overall's dog Hamilton reacted vocally each day when she left.
Dr. Karen L. Overall’s dog Hamilton reacted vocally each day when she left. “He cried – wrenchingly – and tried to go or to keep me back when I headed for the car and he watched as I left. But then he was fine,” she says. – Contributed

Tips and tricks

How can pet owners respond empathetically to the friends we have to leave behind at home?

McManaman says that if you have a dog who appears to be experiencing some kind of separation anxiety, you should reach out for help.

“I would be using the services of a daycare, dog walker, or pet sitter (or a generous friend or family member) to help minimize the amount of time your dog has to spend alone,” she suggests.

If you have added a new dog to your home, she’d recommend practicing short departures.


“They aren’t doing this because they’re mad at you or trying to get even.”
—Rose Browne


“When bringing a new puppy into your home, it’s important to remember that so far, their entire life has been spent with their mom and sleeping in a pile of their brothers and sisters,” McManaman points out.

“Then we take them home, put them in a cold crate alone, and expect them to be able to handle spending several hours alone that way. That is hard and a lot to ask, and I think our dogs would be better off if we could realize that.”

Overall suggests using video devices to monitor your pet’s behavior when you’re away. If you see signs of distress – whining, pacing, hiding, over or under-grooming, destruction, vigilance, monitoring, salivation, not drinking or eating – she suggests calling your vet immediately.



“There are medications that can be given before you leave that can lower levels of anxiety, and medications that are given twice a day to help dogs and cats be less anxious in general,” Overall said.

“There are behavioral exercises that can help but a good trainer or specialist who knows how to implement these will need to help you get started.”

Browne cautions against using any kind of punishment on your pets. “Coming home to chewed-up furniture, urine, feces, excessive barking, etc. is likely to bring an angry response, but getting upset at your pet is not the answer,” Browne says. “They aren’t doing this because they’re mad at you or trying to get even.”

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