March-April 2021

Enough already

When the pandemic begins to subside, will our pets panic or be happy to see us leave?

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Illustration by Goodloe Byron

Fauci really doesn’t want the pandemic to end. That’s what Rima Adler says about the cream-colored kitten she adopted in October and named after the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. She also adopted Fauci’s half brother, Rascal. Adler’s daughters—Mackenzie, 9, and Kylie, 6—had begged for a pet after months of isolation. The Potomac family opted for the Ragdoll breed, known for its affectionate demeanor, not realizing how attached the felines would become to them. “We’re actually really concerned about when we do go back to work,” Adler says. “They’re the opposite of sick of us.”

With the real Dr. Anthony Fauci predicting some return to normalcy by midfall, families may be wondering how pets will react without the constant company. Adler is bracing for meltdowns. “Whichever room we’re in, they come in,” she says. Once, when she took her daughters on a walk, “both kittens were at the door crying.”

Meanwhile, Katrina Mauldin’s mutt, Dexter, could do without the 24/7 companionship. “He likes his personal space, he likes his time,” says Mauldin, a government-contracted project manager with the Department of Homeland Security who lives in Germantown. “Us staying home all the time, he’s annoyed.” Dexter, who’s 10, prefers being alone in the quiet bedroom, so he hurls himself against the baby gates Mauldin and her boyfriend set up to keep their three dogs from getting upstairs. “When we used to be around after work, he would initiate contact with us, play,” she says. “Now it’s very much a ‘leave me alone.’ ”

Whether a pet is chomping at the bit for privacy or loving the family time typically depends on individual personality, says Dr. Meghan Connolly, the owner of Atlantic Veterinary Behavior in Gaithersburg. Age can also play a role: Some older dogs may feel their routine has been disrupted. “They’re not used to having all that hustle-bustle around, and so they’re a little bit more irritable and not themselves,” Connolly says.

For pets who seem to be withdrawn, Dr. Elise Geldon recommends simply leaving them be. “We’re invading their time and space, in some ways,” says Geldon, who owns Liberty Falls Veterinary Clinic in Potomac. But those pups are in the minority. “I have…far more dogs that I take care of that are thrilled with their owners being home 24/7 than I have dogs that are unhappy about it.”

Animals adopted during the pandemic pose their own sets of problems, and Geldon anticipates a spike in anxiety—mostly in dogs—once owners return to work. “All of these dogs that have been very happy that their people have been home all the time, or all these puppies that have been raised in homes where people were home all the time—what’s going to happen [later this year]?” she says.

While dogs become vocal when anxious, cats might relieve themselves outside the litter box, Connolly says. “Cats tend to be a little bit more independent; however, they can also develop separation anxiety,” she says. “We are starting to see that in some cats with owners returning to work right now.”

To prepare clingy pets for the change, Geldon recommends simulating the alone time they’ll experience, which has the added benefit of giving introverted pets the privacy they crave. “If their dogs are used to being crated when they’re gone, at least a few times a week I would try to put the dog in the crate and make them think that you’ve left the house for varying lengths of time,” she says. “Or try to actually leave the house on a still-as-regular basis as you can. Just get them used to it.”

Despite the growing pains ahead, some pet owners wouldn’t have it any other way. Adler says her kittens have been a calming presence and helped her younger daughter stay focused during Zoom classes. As for her cats’ adjustment to post-pandemic life? “I think they’ll figure it out,” Adler says. “But not yet.”