separation anxiety in pets can mean torn couches

Separation Anxiety in Pets: How to Help Them

For many pet parents, our recent social isolation meant more quality time at home with our furry or feathery friends. Now things have changed, it’s no wonder separation anxiety in pets is a hot topic among New Zealanders.

In fact, shelters around the country (and the world) saw pet adoptions increase as people looked for companionship to combat anxiety and loneliness during the pandemic.

For social animals like dogs, cats and even birds, the extra play time, walks and snuggles were more than welcome. It’s no wonder many are now dealing with separation anxiety.

What happens when you and your pet are dealing with the return to ‘normal’ life, and you working outside the home?

If you’re feeling anxious about how your furry or feathery family member is responding to a sudden empty house, keep reading to learn how you can help your pet cope with separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety in pets: what is it?

Your pet is one of the family. The bond you build with them has long-lasting benefits for both you and your family. And for them as well!

But unfortunately, we can’t be with them all the time. Demands outside the home mean our pets sometimes get left inside it.

Your pet doesn’t understand this changed behaviour and can fret in your absence. However, sometimes separation anxiety in pets can be misdiagnosed, so it’s best to have a chat with your vet about what’s going on.

Boredom, lack of physical and mental stimulation, alarm barking and lack of suitable chew and scratch toys can also lead to some destructive behaviours.

Triggers for separation anxiety in pets

There are a number of triggers for separation distress. Some of the main ones you should stop and think about are:

  • Being left alone for the first time, or consistently
  • Being left alone when accustomed to constant human contact (such as during the pandemic)
  • Suffering a traumatic event, such as time at a shelter or boarding kennel (during a holiday)
  • Change in the family’s routine or structure, or the loss of a family member or other pet/companion

 Sound familiar? Your pet could very well be suffering. Let’s look at the signs to look out for in your pet.

Symptoms of separation distress and how to treat them

Symptoms of stress and anxiety can differ between breeds and animal types, so we’ve listed some common indicators that your pooch or pussycat is missing you.

Separation anxiety symptoms in dogs

All dogs are different – they may show one, some or all of the below behaviours in response to your leaving them at home. And, some dog breeds are predisposed to nervous behaviours, which this can make separation anxiety worse.

Dogs may:

  • Try to break out of your house or yard when left alone (searching for you)
  • Become destructive in search of attention (scratching on walls, doors and biting furniture)
  • Leave you little ‘surprises’ inside (even when toilet trained)
  • Develop nervous behaviours (like excessive pacing, grooming or whimpering)

Helping dogs overcome isolation distress

Pre-departure anxiety is common in dogs are they begin to understand the cues that lead to you leaving. Desensitisation of those cues where you gradually take away the event that triggers your dog’s stress – the event of you leaving – has been shown to help.

We suggest you:

  1. Expose your pup to the normal leaving ritual, but don’t leave right away
  2. Work up to walking toward the door and touching the handle, then sit back down
  3. Progress to opening the door, stepping out, for longer and longer periods of time, and coming back in
  4. Leave for short periods, telling them in a soothing voice that you’ll be leaving now, then extend this over time until they’re comfortable with being at home

If you’re short on time, you might also try these tips:

  • Ask friends, family or get a pet sitter to help you with your desensitisation, or stay with your pup while you’re away
  • Don’t reward attention seeking behaviour, and try to ignore your dog 15-30 mins prior to you leaving. Reward them for being calm and relaxed
  • Provide them with blankets or laundry with your scent, and provide safe chew toys, or Kong toys filled with food to occupy them while you’re gone
  • Book your pooch into reputable doggy day care services in your area
  • Ensure your dog is getting enough attention and exercise before and after you leave them alone
separation anxiety in pets can mean dogs in suitcase

Separation anxiety in cats

While cats have a reputation for being aloof, they are very social creatures who form deep bonds with their pet parents. So, when you go away on holiday, or leave them for work each day, they may begin to fret that they won’t see you again.

They may:

  • Pine and refuse food while you are gone
  • Meow, cry or vomit after you’ve left
  • Mark your home/furniture with urine and/or defecate inside
  • Begin excessive hair grooming (which can become compulsive)
  • Show signs of reoccurring stress and develop reoccurring cystitis (urinating little or often – including outside the litter tray)
  • Claw or scratch door edges in an attempt to escape their confinement

Helping your kitty cope while you’re away

Cats can also recognise leaving cues and may follow you from room to room before you go, seeking reassurance from you. Cats can be good at masking symptoms, but if they begin doing any of the above, it’s best to speak to your vet first.

These tips might help keep them distracted and happy while you’re out:

  • Quality, climbing frames and cat-safe shelving to help your kitty find a good view of the outside world
  • Scratching posts and food puzzle toys with their day’s ration of food in it (be aware of overfeeding)
  • An assortment of mobile toys enhanced with catnip
  • Leaving the radio or television on
  • Reduce the shock of you leaving by ignoring them for 15-30 minutes prior to doing so

Medication for separation anxiety in pets

If none of the above steps work, you will need to speak with your vet. They may suggest anti-anxiety medication or pheromone therapy. There are a number of drugs on the market for all kinds of dog anxiety and cat anxiety.

You could also look into homeopathic and herbal remedies. As with prescription medication, there is a wide range available on the market today.

Managing pet parent’s separation anxiety

Pets are highly sensitive and will pick up on any anxiety you have about leaving them too, so it’s important you stay calm and composed before you leave, but also when you come home. Greet them calmly, without making a huge fuss.

We know that can be hard but it’s best for them and for you if either of you are dealing with anxiety issues.

Plus, if you’re an overprotective pet parent, and you never leave your pet’s side, or shower them with too much love and attention – this will exacerbate any separation distress they experience.  

If this sounds like you, then you’ll need to make changes to your behaviour too. But don’t worry – the best pathway is to do it gradually, so you can both get used to it.  

Choosing to take more time for yourself without your pet will help both of you deal with separation anxiety when you don’t have a choice but to be without each other.

 Find activities that you enjoy doing solo. Spend more time with friends and family. Treat yourself to some self-care out and about when you can…

Spending time apart for positive experiences will assist with reducing the co-dependency. And you’ll have fun too!

At PD, we want both you and your pet to live long and happy lives. It makes sense protect them against injuries and stress-related illnesses with our pet insurance. After all, they’re one of the family.

Over to You – Separation anxiety in pets

Does your pet suffer from separation anxiety? Do you? If you have any tips you can share, we’d love to hear them.

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