Home Alone

Mt. Lebanon veterinarian Suzanne Mullings, who owns Allegheny South Veterinary Services, poses with her Golden Doodle, “Chip” inside one of the Bridgeville practices examination rooms.

When the pandemic hit, fur babies who were used to spending lots of time alone while their parents were away at work got an unexpected surprise: 24/7 quality time with their owners.

For those who didn’t have pets, working from home meant many now had the time to welcome their own fluffy furball into the family.

“We had a huge upswing of people needing appointments for pets,” said Suzanne Mullings, Longuevue Drive, owner and medical director of three veterinary service centers in the region, including Allegheny South Veterinary Services in Bridgeville and South Hills Veterinary Services in Castle Shannon. The increased need for appointments was twofold: those who added a new pet to their crew and those who were home watching their dogs’ and cats’ every move and began identifying problems that needed treatment.

Fast forward to today, and as things are opening back up and the grownups are headed back to work, that means another shift for the pets who will once again spend plenty of time alone. For some that’s a difficult process. Thankfully, thus far, Mullings has only seen about a 25 percent increase in separation anxiety from her patients, although many fur moms and dads are worried it could become a problem.

“I am seeing some concern for separation anxiety issues, people being concerned about what’s going to happen when they leave their dog alone,” Mullings said. “They’re not used to the crates. They’re not used to being home alone.”

Separation anxiety can exhibit itself in many forms. It can range from a change in personality, to softer stool, vomiting or even aggressive behavior. When thinking about your pets and how to address changing situations, it’s always important to think ahead and prepare.

Mullings has been an integral part of the pet owning process for many families. She advises to hold back from giving pharmaceuticals as the first solution to treat a stressed-out pet. “It’s not always a pharmaceutical issue. It’s a behavioral issue and so we have to treat it like that,” she said.

She recommends starting slow, depending on the level of the separation anxiety a pet is experiencing, and leaving the house for a short time.

“If it’s a severe case, start with just a few minutes of leaving the pet. Pick up your keys, do the same cues that you do all of the time and then leave very briefly and return,” she said. “And downplay when you come home.”

Veterinary assistant Sarah Maidment holds “Little Foot” for Dr. Suzanne Mullings during an examination. Mullings is the owner of Allegheny South Veterinary Services in Bridgeville. She purchased the practice in 2008.

Pets will get excited when their owner returns. So, de-emphasizing it will help keep them calm throughout the entire process.

It’s also important to give your pet their own space, one with positive connotations that will make them want to spend time there, Mullings said. Whether it’s a crate or a bed, give them their favorite treat when—and only when—they’re in that space. If you’re using a crate, be sure to get them used to the space.

All of this is going to take time, Mullings said. For some, the response will be quicker than for others. With more severe cases of separation anxiety, she recommends slowly increasing the amount of time that you leave the pet to allow them to adapt.

“It’s a process that’s definitely worth it,” Mullings said.

If you didn’t have time to prepare your pets for your return to work, Mullings recommends considering a doggy day care or having a pet sitter—or even a neighborhood kid—visit to keep your animal company.

After trying all of this, if a pet is still struggling, then, Mullings said, she talks with her clients about possibly using gentle herbal calming treats.

Veterinary centers are still dealing with the increased need for services coupled with a shortage of staffing. So, be patient if you’re looking to get your pet an appointment. Mullings’ veterinary service locations haven’t accepted new patients since last year, because the need for all of her current clients to be treated was so high. She plans to start a wait list. However, if your pet is experiencing a problem that needs to be addressed right away, be sure to call a veterinarian.

“It breaks my heart because I want to help everyone,” Mullings said of not accepting new clients. “We do try, if there’s someone who is in dire need of having their pet seen.”

Overall, the last year has been positive for pets, she said. They’re getting adopted and finding their forever homes, all while spending plenty of time with those who love them the most.

Photography by John Schisler