Whether you’re one of the 23 million U.S. households that adopted a pet since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic or have had yours since long before, returning to the office has probably sparked some challenges—unless, like those spotlighted by The Wall Street Journal newsroom last year, you’re one of the lucky employees with a pet-friendly office.
Leaving a pet alone for long periods of time when you’ve had months of extreme togetherness can exacerbate stress, and interactive or calming specialty pet items may make the transition smoother. (Veterinarians note that true separation anxiety is a condition that should be treated by a professional. For less anxious behavior, they say, certain products can be helpful.) We asked veterinarians, dog trainers and animal-behavior experts for the ones they recommend, and I tried out many with my own pet, to bring you six standouts. For more ideas, see The Wall Street Journal newsroom’s report on creative ways some individuals are helping their dogs cope.
Dogs are often most comfortable resting on slightly raised spaces that are easy to get on and off of, says Mikkel Becker, lead animal trainer for Fear Free Happy Homes, an educational site for pet owners and vets—which is why an elevated cooling bed can be a helpful anxiety-reliever when you’re away. Becker likes the Kuranda because it’s “sturdy and chew-proof, and also stands up to wear and tear.” It’s so calming that she even recommends bringing it along on trips to the veterinarian for your pet to relax on while waiting for the exam. Another restful upgrade: Make your dog bed more indulgent. The Molly Mutt Dog Bed Duvet is one of Becker’s favorite finds because “you can stuff it with your own items, such as worn tee shirts and pillows or bedding, so that it smells like you,” she says.
To give your dog a reassuring sensation similar to that of swaddling an infant, dress him in a coat that applies subtle weight on key pressure points. “This helps your dog relax in the same way we may calm down with a long hug from a friend when we’re stressed,” Becker says. When her own rescue dog was exhibiting signs of distress (like whining and shaking) during noisy situations, the ThunderShirt was a “transformative tool,” she says: “Once gently wrapped up in it, he would go from agitated pacing and vocalizing to quietly resting.” It doesn’t work for all pets, she notes, “but for those it does, the effect is profound.”
When Becker travels or heads out of the house for work or errands, this small Pet Tunes speaker steps in as a companion for her dogs, of sorts. “It’s loaded with music that’s suited to a dog’s sensitive hearing and set at a beat that’s calming and likely to align with their resting heart rate,” she says. To dull outdoor sounds like construction and traffic, Becker pairs the musical device with a white-noise machine. It creates a “safe sanctuary indoors” that keeps the dogs from being overly concerned with what’s going on out there, she says.
A cat tree gives your feline a high-rise view of your home, expanding their square footage and offering added feelings of security and safety, which are important for a cat’s emotional health, says Becker, who favors the high-quality, modern-looking options from On2Pets. “These also offer enrichment by allowing your cat to watch birds, bugs and other critters scamper or fly by, which can keep your cat entertained throughout the day,” she says. For extra interaction, Becker suggests hiding treats or toys for your cat within the branches. It’s a great way “to engage their body and brain in happy activity when their pet parent is away.”
Dogs that have a difficult time staying alone suffer from anxiety, and boredom exacerbates that, says Jamie Whittenburg, a veterinarian and director of Kingsgate Animal Hospital in Lubbock, Texas. Hide-a-treat puzzle toys like the Hide N’ Slide can distract them from that feeling by giving them a reward to seek out. Here’s how it works: After slipping treats into the compartments, you swivel the flippers and slide the blocks closed, and then your dog will work hard to sniff out the food. “I liken this to giving a young child a coloring book when a parent leaves them with a babysitter,” Dr. Whittenburg says, so consider putting it out for your pet as you depart.
You’ll want to keep your comings and goings as low-key as possible, adds Becker. “It’s okay to say goodbye to your pet with a simple ‘I’ll be back’ as you give them the food puzzle,” she says. And don’t try to sneak out the door. “There’s no tricking them,” she notes, and reducing uncertainty will help reduce their anxiety. “Pairing that with a positive—the toy—adds a happy emotional slant to make the parting less distressing.”
I tried this with my own dog, a 2-year-old Boykin spaniel mix named Brisket, putting a small handful of Bocce’s Bakery Bac’n Nutty training bites inside the puzzle slots. She spent about 30 minutes digging around with her nose until all the compartments were open, and afterward appeared tired and satisfied.
Our pros said a WiFi-enabled camera can be helpful to check whether your pet is calmly reacting to the change or showing signs of anxious behavior, such as sitting by the door and crying, as Brisket is apt to do when I leave. If you have one with two-way audio, you can use it to interact with your pet; do a trial run first when you’re close to home, suggests Julie Burgess, a certified dog trainer at Senior Tail Waggers, and keep your voice calm and soothing as you say hello or give commands. Some high-tech cameras can also dispense treats, but according to Burgess, a no-frills model will suffice. The Petcube Cam is a fraction of the price of many tricked-out versions, and I was surprised by the sharp picture quality and how easy it is to mount it—all you have to do is use the (included) adhesive tape to affix it to a wall or shelf.
Much like humans use essential oils such as eucalyptus, bergamot and lavender for their calming properties, that practice can be employed with dogs—sort of. Dr. Whittenberg says that products that release a solution mimicking a dog mother’s natural nursing pheromones, like a body heat–activated pheromone collar or plug-in diffuser, can help a dog feel comfortable in fearful situations like when you leave for work or during loud storms or parties. “Think of it as what you experience when you smell a pleasant smell from your childhood or hear an old favorite song and it calms you,” she says. The Adaptil products contain a higher concentration of dog appeasing pheromone (DAP) than many others on the market, notes veterinarian Lindsay Butzer.
I’ve seen first-hand with my own dog what the pet experts say—that, while catnip (specifically the volatile oil known as nepetalactone) acts as a stimulant for cats, it’s more of a sedative for dogs. “Catnip has been used for years in dogs to help alleviate their anxiety,” Dr. Butzer affirms, and while Becker suggests putting the catnip in a stuffable toy like the Original Snuggle Puppy, Dr. Butzer prefers pouring a small amount into a pet’s food. I tried this with Skinny Pete’s Dog-EZZ organic catnip for dogs, using the suggested measurements on the bag (¼ teaspoon for my 22-pound dog), and Brisket pretty much zoned out; after rolling around on the soft carpet for a few minutes, she nuzzled into the pillows on the couch and closed her eyes.
Cats have a reputation for being independent and aloof, but they can display separation issues too, with behaviors like excessive shadowing before you leave, over- or under-grooming and a decreased appetite, says Becker. She suggests using a timed and measured feeder to give your cat a predictable meal schedule, which can be calming and reassuring. “My brother has used the PortionPro feeder faithfully for years,” she says. Becker also recommends a smart water bowl to track hydration, noting, “Decreased drinking is especially dangerous and can lead to organ failure in cats if it’s not promptly addressed.”
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