Secret Life of Pets: What Your Pet's Thinking About When You're Gone

What pet owner hasn’t imagined what their dog or cat was doing while they were away at work?
What were they thinking about? Were they thinking of us? This question has inspired a great
deal of storytelling and even scientific research. Recently, an animated film pondered this
question and new results from fMRI studies, previously thought impossible to do on living dogs,
opened up extraordinary insights into our dog’s inner lives. And while scientists have not yet
figured out how to get cats scanned by MRIs, new research into their thoughts and feelings
reveals significant recognition of and attachment to their human companions as well.


If increased insight into our pets inner lives has revealed the strong emotional bonds between
humans and their pets, so too have we become more aware of the emotional risks that
accompany the inevitable regular separations between pets and their humans. In addition to
being pack animals, dogs, in particular, were bred to be our companions and thus become
bored and anxious when left alone and confined for long stretches. Until such time as we can
all bring our pets to work, school, shopping, the dentist, vacation, etc. (should we all be so
lucky!), we will have to leave our pets at home, either alone or with a caretaker who does not
share the same bond that we do with our pets. And while this was perfectly acceptable just one
or two generations ago, increased knowledge and awareness has led us to a more evolved
perspective on just how stressful frequent and lengthy separations can be for our pets.

Increased collective anxiety about our pets’ mental and emotional well-being, as well as in some
cases their health and safety, has spawned a whole cottage industry of solutions designed to
reduce the stress of the necessary separations between pets and their most beloved humans.
Many of these solutions are becoming increasingly affordable for even the most modest of
incomes. And many pet owners recognize that taking care of their pet’s mental and emotional
health is as important as monitoring their grooming and their nutrition. Many pets, including
dogs, suffer from isolation distress and/or separation anxiety. Some pets may suffer from severe
separation anxiety and cause damage to their homes, unintentionally. It’s important for you to
make the correct accommodations to keep your pet at-ease!

While You Are at Work
Though it would be amusing if true, our pets are not surfing the internet or inviting their friends
over for a party when we go to work. Instead, they are generally sleeping, chewing on toys, or
looking out the window while we are gone. If they are lucky enough to have a dog door and a
fenced yard or a “catio” they may be playing outside as well as inside. For some pets, this is not
enough stimulation for long periods and they can be prone to searching for activities, which can
often lead to trouble, i.e., getting into garbage, mistaking their human’s possessions for chew
toys or deciding to jump on furniture.

They might occupy themselves with escaping the confines of a room or yard or finding a way to
get into a room they are otherwise forbidden from accessing. This can cause obvious damage
to furniture, walls, and doors and can also pose risks to the pet’s safety. Excessive destructive
behavior can also be the result of fear and anxiety in addition to boredom. However, there are
activities and solutions that you can arrange for you while you are away to make the separation
a little less unpleasant for them.

Crate Training
For dogs with severe separation anxiety, crate training is a must for their safety. But some dogs
do not take to a crate easily and can harm themselves trying to break out of the crate. Make
sure to start your crate training with very short intervals, with increasing amounts of time spent
in the crate. You may have to test different kinds of crates to find one in which your pet feels
safe and comfortable. Make sure the crate is large enough for your pet to be able to stand up
and lie down and turn around. If possible keep a chew toy, an object that smells like you (like
an old t-shirt), and, if feasible, a comfortable pad on which to lie down. It may be worthwhile to
install a webcam around the crate during the crate training period to monitor your dog’s behavior
in the crate for signs of severe distress. Crate training can be time-consuming and expensive
but worth it if you find a safe crate that your pet is able to settle down in while you are gone.

Never leave your pet in a crate for more than a few hours and keep in mind that most pets need
to be visited every 4-6 hours and allowed to go outdoors to eliminate.

Calming White Noise
Low level calming background music or television can provide a level of comfort for pets.
Studies have shown that calming audio and/or visual stimuli can be helpful for dogs in particular.
With this in mind, “DogTV” was developed in 2009 with several scientists to maximize the
positive effects of calming dogs through visual and auditory stimuli. The jury is still out on
exactly how effective DogTV is across the board with dogs home alone, but many individual
owners have reported successful results with their dogs anecdotally and so it might be worth
trying for 30 days. The cost ranges between $4 and $10 a month.

“FaceTime” With Your Pet
New startups have developed interactive pet cams that allow you to interact with your pet while
they are at home and you are away. Many pets do recognize their human’s face and voice
when interacting with the camera and screen and may experience reassurance that their human
is still with them. Additionally, some pet cams allow you to play with your pet by incorporating a
laser pointer, which is especially fun for cats.

“Uber” for Dogs
New dog-walking apps like “” and “Wag” have made it easier than ever to hire a dog
walker to stop by and let your dog out while you are away at work and walk them if necessary.
They can also toss a ball around the back yard with your dog and play with the cat for a few
minutes as well, depending on your budget and what your pets need.

Doggie Day Care
For some dogs, it is not possible to stay home alone without experiencing severe distress and
doggie day care may be the best option. While they will still be without their favorite humans, it
is much easier to redirect a dog’s attention in a daycare environment where they can interact
with humans and other dogs and forget their worries for a few hours while expending energy.
Be sure to research and inspect the daycare for cleanliness and safety as not all doggie day
cares are created equal and remember that not every dog has been socialized well enough for a
daycare environment and may require a combination of other solutions. If doggie daycare five
days a week is too expensive, consider enrolling your dog for 1-3 days a week and coming
home yourself at lunchtime for one day, having a family member be responsible for coming
home to let the dog out 1-2 days and hiring a dog walker for the remaining days of the week.
Many independent dog walkers will negotiate a lower price with pet owners if they know it is
going to be a regular, consistent, long-term gig.

There are many other suggestions for pet owners available to improve separation anxiety both
for dogs and cats, including getting another dog or cat to offset isolation distress, rotating
favorite toys in and out, treat puzzles, cat climbing frames, access to the outdoors or to a
viewing window, getting a fish tank for your cat to observe, and even “swaddling” or
“Thunder Shirts.” Additionally, there are habits and rituals that can help reduce your pet's anxiety.
Make sure your pet is walked and fed before you leave for work in the morning. Keep your pet
on a routine schedule and try to maintain the schedule even when you are on vacation or away
from home for other intermittent obligations. Don’t make a fuss over your pet when you depart
or when you come home. Be patient and work with your pet to find the best combination of
solutions that fit your pet’s personality and needs.


Additional Resources

How a Dog Can Help with Depression

Top 10 Tips & Techniques for Training Your Dog

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