Help For Your Home Alone Pet's Separation Anxiety
"Dogs and cats left alone for hours without any appropriate toys or interesting perches will get cabin fever, much like we do," says Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, professor and director of animal behavior in the department of clinical sciences at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, MA. "Put yourself in their place. Imagine spending 3 weeks in your house and not being able to read books or watch television and only going outside 10 minutes a day. You, too, might develop some bad habits." The cause behind canine destructiveness and constant catnapping may sometimes be sheer boredom, explains Dr. Dodman, author of If Only They Could Speak (W.W. Norton & Company, 2002).
"Bored dogs chew up furniture, pull tiles off the kitchen floor, bark, howl, dig in the yard, and in essence, become neurotic, unhappy beasts," adds professional dog trainer Susan Greenbaum, who operates the Barking Hills Country Club in Hunterdon County, NJ. "What you want are happy, tired dogs." Our pets, just like us, benefit from regular exercise and mind-stimulating games.
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Their feline counterparts also show their disdain for a monotonous life. "Cats not given enough stimulation tend to do more scratching, biting, and other inappropriate behaviors, often stemming from boredom. Or, they get fat because they just eat and sleep," says Elaine Wexler-Mitchell, DVM, a board-certified veterinarian in feline medicine from Orange, CA, and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to a Healthy Cat (Alpha, 1999).
Help Him Play While You Work
Job and family demands require many pet owners to spend 8 or more hours a day away from their homes and their pets. But here are some engaging games and tactics that can help keep your pets from pining during your absence.
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Foraging for treats. Before you head out the door for work, give your pooch a hollow, hard rubber, chewable toy stuffed with his favorite treat: peanut butter, mashed bananas, pieces of rice cake, or pieces of kibble. Your dog will happily work at getting every little morsel and won't notice your absence for hours. This tactic helps curb destructiveness, overeager greeting, and separation anxiety tendencies. Clean these rubber toys in your dishwasher or hot, soapy water at least once a week. For cats, sprinkle a teaspoon of catnip on their scratching post before you depart.
Arrange a scavenger hunt. Most dogs love to be assigned jobs. Teach your dog the "Find the treat" command. First, "hide" treats in clear view, then encourage your dog to go to them, and deliver plenty of praise. As your dog gets the idea behind this game, start placing treats in less visible places. Finally, stash some food treats around your house-behind a chair, under the coffee table, on the top stair, and so on for your dog to find after you leave for work each morning.
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Muffle noise distractions. Consider turning on the radio or the television to create "white noise" and filter out unpleasant sounds such as the neighbor's yapping dog, traffic, or even frightening thunderstorms.
Provide rooms with views. Cats just love to watch what's happening outside. Place a bird feeder on a tree branch outside within view of your cat's favorite window perch. "You're giving your cat something exciting to watch during the day," says Dr. Wexler-Mitchell. "The bird-feeding activity strikes a cat's innate hunting instincts."
Vary the daily routine. Treat your dog to an occasional day at a doggie day care center or a midday visit from a dog-friendly neighbor or a professional pet-sitter. Make sure that the doggie centers and pet-sitters are trained, insured, and bonded.
Remote reassurance. Dogs and cats love the sound of their owner's voice. Consider telephoning home twice a day and leaving a spirited message for your pet such as, "Hey, Jazz, this is Marcia. I'll be home in a couple of hours, and I look forward to playing your favorite game with you." Or, record the next family dinner conversation or evening get-together. Set the tape recorder so that it replays continuously or on a timer during the day. "Nothing is more depressing than the sound of silence," says Dr. Dodman. "This tape will offer some auditory distraction for your pet." Or, make a videotape of you playing with your cat or dog. Some VCRs have a timer you can set, so the footage plays randomly throughout the day.