this brown setter dog lying its head on grass is suffering from separation anxiety in pets

Separation Anxiety in Pets: How to Help Them


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Our recent periods of social isolation thanks to COVID 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 rising concern in New Zealand.

In fact, shelters around the country (and globally) saw pet adoptions increase as people looked for companionship to help support and improve their mental health 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 externally again? If you’re feeling anxious about how your furry companion is responding to a sudden empty house (or perhaps pets and breakups is on your mind) read this to learn how to help your pet cope with separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety in pets: what is it?

Your pet is a key family member – they know so and they love it. The bond you build with them has long-lasting benefits for both you and your family (here’s how children growing up with pets benefit, for example).

Unfortunately, we can’t be with them all the time. Demands in the big wide world outside mean our pets sometimes get left back at home. Your pet doesn’t understand this changed behaviour and can fret in your absence. It’s not just felines and canines that can experience it. Separation anxiety in birds is a thing too.

Sometimes separation anxiety in pets can be misdiagnosed, so it’s best to have a chat with your vet about what’s going on if you notice unusual behaviour. Boredom, lack of physical and mental stimulation, alarm barking and lack of suitable chew and scratch toys can also lead to some destructive behaviours. Depression in dogs is also a possibility.

On the barking front, the old question of why do dogs bark is answered here.

separation anxiety in pets can mean torn couches

Separation anxiety in pets: key triggers

There are numerous triggers for separation distress, though some more common ones you should stop and think about are:

  • Being left alone for the first time, or way too often (dogs get more stressed than cats about this)
  • Being left alone when accustomed to constant human contact (such as during the pandemic)
  • Suffering trauma, e.g., being lost, spending time at a shelter or pet boarding facility (during a holiday)
  • Change in the family’s routine or structure, or the loss of senior pet parents or other pet/companion
  • Change in their environment, for instance moving house or doing home renovations

If this sounds familiar your pet could very well be suffering. Let’s look at the signs to watch out for.

Symptoms of and treatment for separation distress

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

Separation anxiety symptoms in dogs

All dogs are different – they may react to being left at home by showing one, some or all of the below behaviours. Further, certain breeds are predisposed to nervous behaviours, which can exacerbate separation anxiety.

Your pup may do any of the following or similar:

  • 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)
separation anxiety in pets can mean dogs in suitcase

Helping canines overcome isolation distress

Pre-departure anxiety is common in dogs are they learn the cues that lead to you leaving. What’s been shown to help is de-sensitisation of those cues, where you gradually work through the event that triggers your dog’s stress – the event of you leaving.

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 cats

We all know how aloof many cats can be, but most are social creatures who form deep bonds with their pet parents. So, when you go away on vacation or leave them for work often throughout the week, they may begin to fret that they won’t see you again.

They could do any of the following or similar:

  • 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
Are all ginger cats male? No, but this one is.

Helping your kitty cope while you’re away

Just like dogs, cats too can recognise leaving cues and may follow you from room to room before you go, seeking reassurance (here’s a little more on understanding cat behaviour). Cats can be good at masking their symptoms of separation anxiety, but if they begin doing any of the above then speak top your vet.

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

Here’s some vet advice from Dr Cath Watson on helping pets survive separation anxiety:

Pet separation anxiety medication

If none of the above steps work, you’ll need to speak with your vet. They may suggest anti-anxiety medication or pheromone therapy. There are several drugs available for all manner of dog anxiety and cat anxiety issues.

You could potentially explore homeopathic and herbal remedies too – again, there’s 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 fly solo.

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!

Pet insurance to reduce the anxiety

At PD Insurance, we want both you and your pet to live long and happy lives. It makes sense to protect them against injuries, illnesses and other ailments with our simple, quality pet insurance. Get a quick quote now.

After all, your pet is one of the family.

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