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Separation Anxiety in Pets

2020-09-14

Our pet’s lives revolve around ours. Our furry companions rely on us for meals, socialization, and a safe place to sleep. It’s no wonder that some of our pets feel insecure when we’re away, reacting with panicky and seemingly irrational behaviors as soon as we pick up our keys. 

While it may seem cute that your pet misses you with such gusto, these are often signs of separation anxiety. The high level of stress caused by your absence can take a mental and physical toll on your pet.

If you’re wondering if your dog or cat has separation anxiety, read on to learn how you can help your pet feel calm and confident when you leave the house.

What Exactly is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety occurs when an animal is extremely attached to their owner, leading the pet to be deeply distressed when left alone at home. This profound worry can cause a pet to panic and react. Often pets with separation anxiety express their stress through a range of heartbreaking or “bad” behaviors like whimpering, crying, or destroying their surroundings.
 

What Causes Separation Anxiety?

There is no clear reason why some pets develop separation anxiety and others do not. Many pets that suffer from separation anxiety do share some common experiences, including: 

  • Sudden changes in schedule
  • Major changes in the home: a new baby, moving, roommates
  • Living in a shelter
  • Changing owners, being given up for adoption or abandoned
  • Loss of a loved one

What Does Separation Anxiety Look Like?

Not all pets exhibit the same symptoms and some cases are more severe than others. If you’ve wondered if your dog has a problem with separation anxiety, look for these signs:

  • Whining, crying, barking, whimpering, or howling when you leave
  • Uncharacteristic inability to control urination or defecation
  • Destroying furniture, toys, or bedding
  • Scratching and chewing around doors and windows
  • Trying to escape when you leave or after you’re gone
  • Pacing
  • Excessive paw licking
  • Drooling, panting, or staring
  • Finding or retreating to a safe space


Separation Anxiety in Cats

While not as common, and often not as destructive, cats can also experience separation anxiety. Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Yowling and vocalizing when you leave
  • Lack of appetite when you’re away
  • Excessive grooming
  • Eliminating outside of the litter box
  • Trailing you to the door

What Can You Do to Help a Pet with Separation Anxiety?

There are ways you can help your pet cope with separation anxiety. It takes time and commitment to help a pet understand that the world isn’t ending when you walk out the door, but the investment is worth knowing they feel calm and secure while you’re away.

1) Replace the Fear with Cheer

Counter-conditioning your dog or cat can help them overcome their fear of you leaving. When you’re preparing to go, give your pet a new toy or a high-value treat, which will help replace the fear with happiness over time. A frozen peanut butter Kong or frozen tuna cube can do the trick. 

2) Use Tools Designed to Keep Your Pet Busy and Distracted

Provide your pet with a puzzle toy to keep their mind busy and focused on something other than your absence. Toys like the Busy Buddy Puppy Waggle for dogs or the Kong Active Treat Ball for cats offer long-lasting mental stimulation, engagement, and excitement.

Many dogs and cats also find pheromone therapies work to ease their minds. Imperceptible to humans, products like Adaptil and Feliway release chemicals that stimulate the areas of your pet’s brain that are connected to feeling calm, comfortable, and happy.

3) Evaluate Your Exit Routine

Some dogs and cats begin feeling anxious as soon as they recognize you’re leaving. If your pet knows the signals of your imminent departure, switch it up to reduce the tension that builds as they see you go through your routine.

Do you always grab your purse or keys off a hook by the door? Try keeping them in your bedroom. Does your dog begin to whimper when you lace up your shoes? Put them on outside instead.

You can also act like you’re leaving and then stay home. Repeating these actions without them resulting in your absence will desensitize your pet to signals that you’re headed out the door.

4) Practice Makes Perfect

Another behavior modification strategy that works for a lot of dogs is to desensitize them to being alone. Paired with an exciting treat or toy, leave for small blocks of time then slowly and incrementally lengthen your time away. One week you may just take a drive down the street and back, then the next you may try grabbing some snacks from a local convenience store.

Don’t do too much too quickly - you should see your pet is calm and comfortable before adding on time. You’ll also want to avoid making your return a big deal. As fun as it is to see the excitement in your dog when you walk in the door, whipping them into an emotional frenzy when you come back won’t help them feel good about being alone. Ask your dog to sit and be calm before you greet them. (As a bonus, this will also help any jumping on you and your guests!) 

5) Consult a Professional

You’re not alone when it comes to your pet’s health and behavior. Our veterinary professionals can discuss your pet’s symptoms and help you understand the severity of their anxiety. While most pets just need a little extra love and accommodation to feel better about being alone, severe separation anxiety may need to be treated with a prescription.

Combined with medication, working with a professional trainer or behaviorist can help your pet overcome their separation anxiety for good. 

Your Pet Doesn’t Need to Live with Separation Anxiety

Addressing separation anxiety in your cat or dog takes time, understanding, perseverance, and patience. We’re here to help you better understand your pet’s needs. Whether it’s their physical or mental wellbeing, we’ll help you give your companion the life they deserve. Take the first step to a stress-free life for your best pal and make an appointment today.

Photo Credit: Pexels.

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