Over the past few years of social distancing and working from home, many people turned to pets to relieve their depression and anxiety. Now, as humans return to the office and their pre-pandemic routines, pets are struggling with their own mental health issues.
After Chattanooga resident Summer Moore spent the first year of the pandemic working from home all day, she started noticing signs of separation anxiety in Annie, the 6-year-old beagle she had since the dog was 4 months old.
When she started to venture out more, Annie's increased anxiety also intensified her existing digestive issues.
Moore traveled to Mexico to visit her parents last Christmas, and when she returned home, Annie's anxiety was so severe that she developed gastritis, or inflammation of the stomach lining, which required an emergency room visit.
After the trip, Annie started making scream-like sounds every time Moore left the house. A neighbor in her apartment building called the landlord because she thought the dog was being abused, she said.
And when Moore moved to Chattanooga from Austin, Texas, last year, Annie's problems only got worse.
She worked with her vet to try to find something that could help. He suggested she try fluoxetine, the generic version of the antidepressant Prozac.
Moore said she saw no effect from the low dose initially prescribed, and when the dose was increased a month later, there was still no change in Annie's behavior.
She also worked with a trainer, who taught Moore desensitization techniques, such as carrying her keys around the house or randomly opening and shutting doors to avoid triggering Annie's anxiety when she actually has to leave the house.
"Basically, when I leave the house, it's like a 30-minute process," she said.
From dog relaxation music on TV to CBD treats to calming plug-in diffusers, Moore said she tried every other option she could find before she gave Annie antidepressants.
"The drugs really were the last resort, but it now seems to have been helping," she said. "We're about five months in now, and she's doing a lot better."
Moore said she hopes to eventually wean Annie off of fluoxetine, because it's difficult to know whether the medication or the training techniques or a combination of many factors - which she suspects is the case - led to the improvement in Annie's behavior.
"I'd rather her not be on drugs forever, but I also want her to be healthy and happy, so we'll probably stick with it a while, and I'll just work with my vet to decide whether to take her off it at some point," she said. "I don't think anyone wants to put their dog on antidepressants, but we have to do what's best for them."
Moore isn't the only person with a pet struggling to adjust to new routines.
"My trainer and my vet both said there are so many dogs that are having the same sort of issues right now," she said.
When the pandemic started, the number of adults working from home tripled, going from around 20% to more than 70%, and applications for pet adoptions from rescue groups also increased exponentially, said veterinarian Natasha Jones, who works for Chattanooga emergency veterinarian service Veterinary Care and Specialty Group and as a relief doctor through her company Paws and Relax Veterinary Services.
As many of those new pet parents returned to the office, their fur babies were suddenly left home alone, wondering what happened. Many of them have turned to antidepressants to try to help pets adjust, said Jones, who recommends people try conditioning techniques alone or in combination with medication to find a solution that works for their pet.
She's seen success with collars that release calming pheromones, as well as with prescription foods with anxiety-relieving ingredients such as the amino acid L-theanine.
Pet parents can give their dog a food puzzle as they leave to keep them distracted for hours, she said, and taking dogs for walks before leaving for the day also helps to keep them happy long after their owner is gone.
When people return home after time away, Jones suggests giving overly excited pets the cold shoulder until they calm down to reinforce that behavior.
Liz Boggan, a veterinarian at Red Bank Animal Hospital, said pet parents can ease their dog's transition to their absence by taking the animal to a doggie day care or to the house of a friend who also has dogs. Even if the friend isn't home, just being around other dogs can be helpful, she said.
While the pandemic may have increased mental illness among pets, animals have struggled with depression and anxiety since long before the first case of COVID-19.
A 2016 study of small animal veterinarians found 83% had prescribed fluoxetine for dogs or cats.
A variety of other antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications are prescribed to dogs, including some that are fast-acting and used only as needed. Those drugs are better suited for acute issues that need immediate attention, as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors like fluoxetine take five to eight weeks to take effect, Boggan said.
Whether pet parents choose to employ conditioning techniques, diet changes, schedule tweaks, medication or a combination of methods, Boggan said it's essential to take some sort of action if pets display serious signs of anxiety and depression, such as extremely destructive behavior or self-harm.
"Anxiety usually doesn't get better on its own," she said. "You need to do something to change it because it has sort of a snowball and self-fulfilling prophecy effect."
Every pet's case is different, and few have an easy fix, but successfully treating anxiety is rewarding for both the pet and their human, Boggan said.
"There's lots of different things to try and techniques to use, so don't despair if the first thing you try doesn't work," she said. "Help from a professional can cut down on the time and effort it takes to get a handle on it."
Contact Emily Crisman at email@example.com or 423-757-6508.