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How to ensure your pets are happy while you’re at work

Pets have become well-loved members of our households, but for pets like dogs and cats, who thrive on our attention, parting ways when we head to work or school can feel like a lifetime. We’ve all seen the heart-wrenching ‘sad puppy look’ as we close the front door behind us.

To navigate this dilemma and ensure our pets remain content during our absence, we spoke with Deakin University health promotion experts Dr Emily Cooke and Associate Professor Claire Henderson-Wilson. They shared valuable tips and insights for keeping your pet’s tail wagging and separation anxiety at bay.

‘Animals in the care of humans rely on them for survival and like a parent, those with companion animals feel a strong desire to protect and nurture their development,’ says Assoc Prof Henderson-Wilson.

The four elements that define this human-animal attachment

1) Source of comfort: your pets bring you comfort when they’re around.

2) Stress relief: pets have a remarkable ability to alleviate feelings of stress.

3) Safety and enjoyment: being near your pets can evoke feelings of safety and joy.

4) Stress in absence: separation from your pet can lead to heightened stress.

As humans, when we bring a pet into our home, it’s akin to welcoming a young child. ‘We provide food, water, toys, exercise, pats and affection and a safe space for our pets so they may feel comfortable and safe around us quite quickly,’ says Dr Cooke.

But how can we tell if our pets feel this attachment? Assoc. Prof. Henderson-Wilson highlights some clear signs:

  • They follow you around the house just to be near you.
  • They get excited when you return home from work.
  • They prefer to sleep close to you, a vulnerable position that signifies trust.
  • Animals that love and trust you make prolonged eye contact.

How do we ensure they’re okay while we’re apart?

To ease the separation anxiety that many domesticated animals experience, Cooke and Henderson-Wilson offer practical strategies:

Morning exercise:  

‘One strategy could be to take your pet for a morning walk or run if they’re a walkable animal. You can also have a morning playtime session with them, like throwing a toy or a ball to them before leaving for work. This is likely to tire them out before you leave for work which can reduce the amount of time if they are worried about when you will return,’ they suggest.

Short outings 

Even just a short period of time out of the house, or ‘smell time’ before work as Cooke and Henderson-Wilson call it, can benefit your furry friend and leave them feeling content throughout the day.

Interactive toys:  

Cooke and Henderson-Wilson also suggest the use of interactive toys to keep your pets occupied.

‘These can include ball launchers, Kongs and snuffle mats which stimulate our pets and help to reduce anxiety,’ they explain.

Passive entertainment: 

Pets also love natural interaction, therefore leaving things turned on that would be on while we’re home can also help.

‘Leaving a radio or TV on or providing our pets with a window or a door to look outside if they enjoy people watching may reduce their stress.’

How long does that ‘sad puppy face’ last?

While some pets may only feel like they’ve been behind for a short time, others will take longer to adjust. ‘It definitely depends on the companion animal, their age and circumstances,’ says Cooke.

Cooke and Henderson-Wilson believe the best possible way to avoid your animal feeling as though they’ve been left behind is to keep them occupied as well as you can while they’re on their own.

‘Using the strategies, we have discussed you can decrease the time it takes for your pet to feel anxious when you leave for the day.’

this. featured experts
Dr Emily Cooke
Dr Emily Cooke

Former PhD student,

Faculty of Health,

Deakin University

Associate Professor Claire Henderson-Wilson
Associate Professor Claire Henderson-Wilson

Associate Professor,

Faculty of Health,

Deakin University

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