Have you ever come home at the end of the day to find your shoes chewed to bits or your curtains pulled off the rods? Believe it or not, your dog or cat isn't being deliberately destructive, says Patricia McConnell, a certified applied animal behaviorist in Black Earth, Wisconsin, and author of The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs (Ballantine). "He sees it as trying to play with something interesting," she says.
So the challenge, then, is to plan interesting things for your pet to do when he's faced with a day alone. Before you leave, take your dog on a super-long walk around the neighborhood. Or grab that shoestring your cat is so fond of and lead her on a merry chase.
"Your dog or cat will be more tired and satisfied with the special time he gets from you first thing. He may even start to associate your leaving with a pleasant activity," says Marty Becker, a veterinarian in Twin Falls, Idaho, and author of many pet books, including Fitness Unleashed: A Dog and Owner's Guide to Losing Weight and Gaining Health Together! (Three Rivers). Becker recommends at least 15 minutes of exercise each day or walking one block for every 10 pounds your dog weighs. Other ideas:
Work for Food
By nature, dogs and cats are hunters. So leave her with a food puzzle and make her work for her breakfast. Give her the puzzle right before you leave the house. Instead of taking her only minutes to eat her breakfast, it may last as long as 30 minutes. "Or in the case of my retriever," says Becker, "20 minutes instead of 20 seconds." Some of the best food puzzles are made under the names Kong and Buster Cube. Kong's newest version, Kong Time, automatically dispenses up to four treat-filled Kong toys throughout the day to keep your pet occupied while you're away. Find them at most pet stores or mass merchandisers with a pet section.
Becker suggests rotating toys twice a month to keep pets from getting bored. An old favorite will be a pleasant surprise when it resurfaces. Keep no more than six toys or food puzzles out at once.
Tune In to the Radio
Music stations may be especially helpful to mask unpleasant sounds such as traffic or the comings and goings of your neighbors in an apartment building. But McConnell cautions owners to steer clear of talk shows because animals are adept at reading emotions, even the negative vibe of an annoyed caller.
Leave your answering machine volume turned up and talk to your pet from the office. She will feel comforted hearing your voice on the other end of the line, whether you call from the office or a business meeting halfway around the world.
Keep Out Distractions
You may have heard that letting your pet look out the window at a bird feeder or butterfly garden is a good distraction. But for most cats, having a window between them and their prey can lead to a high level of frustration. It's the same for dogs. "The biggest mistake people make is setting up their dog to look out a window, as if that would entertain the dog," says McConnell. The dog may become overstimulated and frustrated by a busy scene, she says. If your pet is taking out her hunter instincts or nervous energy on your furniture, consider pulling the shades during the day.
Hire a Pet-Sitter
Not all dogs can be alone all day, cautions McConnell. Small breeds have a higher metabolism so they need to go out more. Puppies and older dogs have similar needs. In these situations, consider finding someone to walk your dog while you're away. If you don't want to hire a dog-walking service, a retired neighbor who is home during the day may enjoy the extra exercise and companionship.
Originally published in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, June 2006.