Separation Anxiety

Does your pet whine or cry when you’re away from them? Most pets don’t enjoy being away from their family, but increased distress is often associated with separation anxiety. Pets can become overly attached to their humans and feel anxious, fearful, and panicked when they are not with them. This can result in destructive behaviors that harm both your pet and their environment. Separation anxiety is a relatively common malady and has many at-home treatments that can help alleviate distress for your furry friend. If you think your pet might have separation anxiety, contact us here at Harmony Vet to learn about how you can best support your pet when they are feeling anxious. 

Signs of Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety can manifest in many areas, and sometimes their behavior may even seem normal. Look out for these signs associated with separation anxiety — if your pet shows multiple of these, it’s time to find support. 

  • Vocalization
  • Salivation
  • Destructive behavior, especially at doors and windows
  • Escape attempts
  • Inappropriate urination or defecation
  • Lack of appetite when alone
  • Self trauma, like licking or chewing, when alone
  • Chewing at walls, doors, or fences
  • Signs of anxiety when you start to leave home
    • Pacing
    • Panting
    • Jumping up on you
    • Attention seeking
    • Avoiding confinement areas
    • Trying to escape 
  • Refusing treats or taking them roughly
  • Panting when they are not hot
  • Yawning when they are not tired
  • Fidgeting and trembling
  • Dilated pupils

Dogs and cats must have their daily needs to be met in order to remain both physically and mentally healthy. A pet’s basic daily needs include proper nutrition, medical care, and grooming. Some other daily needs include physical exercise, mental stimulation, training, positive reinforcement, structured games, protection from stress or fear, social interaction, exploration of new environments, and time for calm and rest.

Developing a routine with activities that meet your pet’s needs on a daily basis is very important. Routines build predictability, which helps life feel more stable and less uncertain. Stability typically reduces anxiety in people and in animals. A routine does not need to be strict, but it should be regular. This allows time for each activity, each day. Maintaining a routine can help protect against separation distress, especially as your family spends more time away from the home. One activity that can be useful for dogs with separation anxiety is regular independence training, where they learn how to be comfortable on their own. 

Independence Training

Teaching pets to be on their own and not overly attached to a specific person is a very helpful coping skill for all furry friends, regardless of how much anxiety and stress they may have. This can help them adapt to changes in schedules and lifestyles, and teach them to be comfortable when the owner is absent and relax without needing to follow the owner around every time they move. 

Any training program should not be stressful for your pet. This means staying “below threshold,” where your pet is not showing any signs of stress and appears willing to participate in training. A dog or cat should not be placed in a stressful situation intentionally. Forcing a pet to confront their fears is called “flooding”. Flooding can result in emotional harm that is difficult or impossible to reverse in some cases. It is also too risky to include in training and behavior modification exercises.  

Downtime: Build time into your furry friend’s day for naps or relaxation, without human interaction. Offer a chew toy, food dispensing toy, stuffed treat holder, or meal in the desired “downtime” location. Tethering or anchoring the food dispenser to the downtime location can help encourage the pet to remain in one place and prevent them from following you while carrying the food treats along for the ride. If your pet is comfortable, provide them with a distraction/reward device and move on with your activities. If they display anxious body language, stop the exercise or take a break before slowly returning to downtime. 

Practice separation: Practice separations help assess if pets are comfortable being left alone. At first, practice separations might only last a few seconds. Select an area where the pet will be safe such as a crate, room with a baby gate, bed in a pet-proofed room, etc. Smile, and calmly say something such as “I’ll be back.” Toss a few treats and then step away out of sight, where your pet can’t get to you. Start with just a few seconds at a time and gradually work up to longer separations. You can install a video camera such as a baby monitor, home monitor, or webcam to check on your pet while you are gone, or review the video when you return to assess how your pet did while you were away.

Departure cues are the noises and activities that your pet observes while you are getting ready to leave. This includes jingling car keys, picking up a wallet or bag, putting shoes on, etc. When you’re getting ready to leave, do it with no drama, and the same when you return. Be calm, reassuring, and relaxed. Acting sad when you leave, giving lots of attention when you leave and when you return home may be linked to increased pet anxiety about being alone. To reduce anxiety around departure cues, practice jingling your keys or putting your shoes on a couple of times throughout the day when you are not leaving. This will decrease the association between those actions and you leaving the house, thus decreasing stress when it really is time to leave.

If you are concerned that your pet may have separation distress or separation anxiety, reach out to us, we can help find answers to your questions. Observe your pet’s responses when you leave home, provide photos/videos of what happened when your pet was alone, and keep a journal of your pet’s behavior. All of this information will help the veterinarian establish a diagnosis. While you are waiting for your appointment, avoid leaving your pet alone. Dog walkers, daycares, pet sitters, safe trips along with you, and working from home are all emergency options while working toward solutions. 

Separation anxiety can be treated. Treatment may involve anxiety reducing supplements or  medication, at-home management, independence training, and an extremely gradual program for safe departures. Support from professionals helps dogs and cats with separation anxiety to have a safe and good quality of life. Dealing with separation anxiety in your pet may feel frustrating, overwhelming, and anxiety inducing for yourself and other human companions. Remember that you are not alone, and mental health resources are available for people and pets to enrich your health, human-animal bond, and life.