Dogs and cats are sociable animals when it comes to humans, and need your attention. Don’t think that having more than one pet will be enough to replace you. Also, not all dogs and cats like other animals, so getting a ‘friend’ for your dog or cat could make matters worse. Some do cope better than others being on their own for extended periods but this very much depends on what they have been taught at a very young age. If a dog or cat has been taught to cope being alone before six weeks of age by the breeder, they tolerate isolation better than pets who haven’t been left alone at all.
As a puppy or kitten owner, teach your young pet to be OK with time alone by giving them special toys to play with while you withdraw. Once they are used to you not being available, you can give the toy to them and leave for short periods of time. By doing this, they’ll learn that alone time is not something to be frightened of. But as mentioned, the majority of this work should be done by the breeder, so be wise in your choice of pet provider.
Cats may be better than dogs at being alone but pet experts are seeing more and more cats suffering from separation anxiety.
HOW LONG CAN I LEAVE MY PET ALONE FOR?
That depends on the ability of your dog or cat to tolerate social isolation. If your dog or cat has a full, interesting life and is walked often (not your kitty), played with, provided with more than enough toys that are suitably stimulating, they can cope comfortably with eight hours of alone time. But if your pet’s entire life revolves around you, and they don’t have suitable toys or a very boring environment, they feel the separation from you more intensely.
WHAT BREED OF DOG SHOULD I GET?
If it’s a dog you’re wanting, some breeds are generally more laid back than others (or just plain lazy) and spend a lot of the day sleeping. Be warned though, any puppy under the age of four months, if left alone for more than half-an-hour or so, could wreak havoc. Do some research about which dogs require less exercise.
HOW WILL I KNOW IF MY PET IS COPING OR NOT?
Pets that don’t do well alone for long periods may become distressed or bored. Signs of their unhappiness could include:
Dogs: pacing, spinning around, howling or incessant barking. It doesn’t even have to be that pronounced. Dogs can also tremble, have toilet accidents when left alone, lick or chew themselves or drool. Other dogs get angry and will rip things up in an expression of their rage.
Cats: Excessive meowing, not using the litter box but rather going on your bed or clothes, excessive self-grooming, eating too fast or not eating at all when you aren’t around.
Attention time means much more to our pets than extra treats. Many of us fall into the trap of excessive treating because we feel guilty about being out all day.
TRAINING YOUR DOG TO BE ALONE
Good news is that you can train your dog to associate being alone, temporarily, with a good thing and not the end of the world.
- As with any training, it’s important to work gradually and consistently.
- Start by saying ‘doggie alone time’ to your dog preferably when they’re in their ‘dog zone’ if they have one while you’re home with them.
- Give them a Kong toy or other puzzle toy filled with treats or peanut butter to keep them busy.
- Initially you’ll have to give the toy while you’re still with them, or they learn to associate the toy with being alone, and it just becomes another signal that means my owner is leaving.
- Start with giving it in your presence, then leaving the room for a minute after two weeks, and gradually extending the time until you can leave them alone for longer.
- When they are OK with the toy for 20 minutes, you can think about leaving the house and leaving them alone.
- Be patient as this could take time. These separation exercises will help to calm your dog when you’re out. By giving them a toy filled with treats they’ll associate it with a good event and learn to trust that you’ll be back – only if they’ve learnt to associate the item with good things while you are still there. If it happens without the initial conditioning, it just becomes another departure cue that means the owner is leaving.
KEEPING YOUR PETS OCCUPIED THROUGHOUT THE DAY
What dog doesn’t love ‘walkies’? We’re blessed with a wonderful climate in SA so get up half-an hour earlier and take your dogs out for a walk. Not only is this great bonding time but it will also help to tire them out and hopefully result in a good snooze once you leave for work. Bonus – you’ve scored some fitness points yourself!
A good 20-minute play with a laser toy or feathered wand would be the cat equivalent of ‘walkies’ and get rid of some pent-up kitty energy.
Install a pet door
This will give your pets access to the house and garden so they don’t feel cooped up indoors or have to stay outdoors all day. Dogs and cats will need to be trained on how to use it. Some tempting treats will come in handy here.
Keep them busy
Stuff a Kong toy with half wet and half dry food or peanut butter. You can even freeze the Kong so it takes longer to get the tasty stuff out. Remember to reduce their meals by the amount you have put in the treats.
Don’t stuff the Kong too tightly in the beginning. It needs to be easy enough for your dog to learn how to get treats out. If it’s too difficult, he’ll give up. Once he’s got the technique waxed, you can gradually stuff it tighter. Scatter your dog’s entire breakfast around so he has to hunt for it. If you have more than one dog, you can feed half of their breakfast in their bowls and the other half can be scatter-fed. Monitor them and if one is losing or gaining weight, you can adjust during weekend or evening meals to restore the balance. Little Miss Greedy may be getting all the food and Mr Slow may be missing out.
If you have enough space you can separate your dogs and feed one around the corner so they’re far away from each other.
Put your cat’s breakfast in a SlimCat feeder ball. It dispenses the dry food as your cat knocks it around, so will take a lot longer to eat breakfast and keep them occupied.
Scratchers and cat furniture are a great option, and with a little catnip sprayed on or sprinkled this is sure to entertain them for a while.
Leave the TV or radio on, gently playing Animal Planet or calming classical music for your dog and cat. It works really well for some.
Dog walker or day care
Dog walker and day care services are in great demand with more places opening up each year in major centres in South Africa. If you can afford it, this is a great option as it provides your dog with exercise, stimulation and human interaction, all in a safe environment. If your dog is well socialised and they enjoy it, doggy day care or going out with dog walkers could be like heaven for them. Some dogs can find it stressful if it’s too much stimulation or they are being bullied.
Perhaps you can ask your domestic worker or neighbour to take your dog/s for a jaunt around the block or pop in for a short playdate during the day.
Arrange playdates with a friend who doesn’t work or who works from home.
Take your dog to work
Check with the boss first! If it isn’t too distracting for you and your colleagues, your dog is calm and well behaved, as well as house trained, it’s a great solution. Work does need to be a secure environment and you should have access to a garden. Remember to take your dog’s favourite toy, treats, bowl and bed along so that he feels at home.
WHEN YOU GET HOME
Show your dog and cat some love and attention in a calm way. Don’t ignore them when you get home, but keep the greetings low key. If you hype them up when you walk in the door, the difference between your presence and your absence will be even more pronounced and may cause stress.
Most dogs and cats will spend their day snoozing while waiting for you to come home, so they need to get moving. If it’s not dark take your dog into the garden for a game of fetch or go for a walk around the block for a leg stretch and to burn off any pent-up energy. Playtime with a feather wand or your kitty’s favourite toy will help to burn off some excess energy and hopefully result in an uninterrupted night’s sleep.