How to Care for Separation Anxiety in Your Pets

Is your pet disruptive or destructive when left alone? Do you frequently come home to destroyed furniture, accidents, or other signs that your furbaby might not be housetrained? These signs are clear indications of separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is a common behavioral disorder that affects cats and dogs worldwide. An estimated 20-40% of dogs suffer from separation anxiety, as well as about 13% of all cats. Anxiety and stress can prevent your pets from leading happy, healthy, and well-adjusted lives. Fortunately, we’ve gathered information in order to recognize the signs of separation anxiety and how you can help your furbaby.

What is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a condition rooted in acute stress that can be extremely difficult for our pets. It is more serious than a pout or a whimper, destructive chewing, or mischief due to boredom. Separation anxiety is triggered when dogs and cats become distraught due to separation from their human guardians or the people they are bonded to. They feel a lingering sense of dread and/or panic that can result in the deterioration of your pet’s physical and mental health.

Recognizing the Signs

Some dogs or cats might simply have undesirable habits when left alone – destructive chewing, urinating or defecating indoors, incessant barking or yowling. However, these behaviors, along with other signs of distress, can indicate stress and anxiety.

 Symptoms include:

  • Profuse drooling or pacing
  • Digging, chewing, and destruction
  • Barking, howling, or yowling
  • Urinating and/or defecating indoors or outside of the litter box
  • Depression and/or lethargic behavior
  • Loss of appetite
  • Excessive agitation or panic when guardians prepare to leave
  • Attempts to prevent their humans from leaving
  • Escape attempts
  • Overwhelmed excitement when guardians return
  • Coprophagia – the process where some dogs defecate and then consume all or some of their excrement

What You Can Do

Separation anxiety is serious and shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. It isn’t something your pet can simply “get over”. Extended stress can cause lasting effects to your pet’s general health. However, patience and counter-conditioning can help them handle time alone without the fear and distress of separation anxiety.
(Counter-conditioning is a recommended treatment process that changes the pet’s nervous, fearful, or tense associations to more positive and peaceful ones. It is a method of training your pet to understand that what has upset them can actually be good.)

  • Talk to your vet to rule out any other potential medical issues that might be affecting your furbaby’s physical or mental health.
  • Look at the big picture: Is there something that can explain your dog’s or cat’s behavior, such as boredom, incomplete house training, lack of socialization, or age? If you still suspect that separation anxiety is to blame, begin to work with them to redirect the negative associations they experience when you leave.
  • Give them reassurances and positive associations that counteract their worry. Help condition them to a new idea of what it means when you leave. You know you’re just going to work, but to your furbabies, it might seem like you might never return.
  • Consider speaking to an animal behaviorist for personalized tips.

Tips to Combat Separation Anxiety

 Don’t Make It a Big Deal

  • Avoid the temptation to say goodbye or draw attention to your departure.
  • Downplay your return by settling in first and waiting until your pet is completely calm before you say hello or pay attention to them. This tilts the focus of the guardian’s coming and going as it is treated like less of an ordeal.
  • Curb the “Out the Door Freak Out” with some attention to your departure routines. Does the sound of you grabbing your keys or picking up your bag/wallet/etc. tell your dog or cat that you are about to leave? Mix up your routine. Think about what cues you give that signal your departure. Try doing those things during the day when you are with your pet. If they learn that hearing these things isn’t an automatic prologue for dreaded time alone, they will start to change their panicked association of the sound.

Build Them Up

Work with your pet to “build up to” being okay on their own by practicing graduated absences. This process helps build their confidence. Start with very short absences, such as an out of sight stay on the other side of a bedroom door, and gradually build up to longer and more advanced absences. The first 40 minutes alone are the most stressful for many pets struggling with separation anxiety.

Give Them Distractions

Engaging distractions can make being alone a fun and positive experience. Give them a task to engage their brain while you are gone. Kongs filled with treats and dog-safe peanut butter or puzzle toys that stimulate your furbaby’s brain can help keep them occupied and calm. These distractions help pass the time.

Tired Pets Worry Less

Exercise is good for your furbaby’s well-being. A pet that has been properly exercised is less likely to fret if they are tuckered out. This can be from physical activity and playtime, or from brain-teasers and learning new tricks. Mental and physical exercise are great ways to stimulate – and even calm – your pet.

Reinvent What Being Separated Means

  • Consider letting your pet stay pet with someone that they know and trust that will create a fun experience to distract them until you return.
  • Send them to a friend’s house for a play date with other pets.
  • Take them to doggy daycamp. Daycamps provide an environment that is engaging and stimulating; they’re great for socialization. They also provide opportunities for learning and playing in a positive, supervised environment.

Consider a Thundershirt

Much like a soothing hug, thundershirts relieve nervous energy and stress in pets by tightly wrapping their core in a gentle pressure that reassures and calms them. They can be worn while boarding, during car rides, fireworks season, storms, or any occasion that might make your furbaby feel uneasy.

Be Patient

Your furbaby loves you – you’re their whole world. It can be difficult, but undeniably, the most important thing to help your pet cope with separation anxiety is your patience. Remember: they aren’t “punishing you” or intentionally making things difficult. They are coping the best way they know how. Ask the experts, try different things, be persistent. Some approaches that work for many pets might not work for yours. That’s okay – keep at it. If you are patient with your furbaby and remain positive, it is possible to get to the other side with a happy, confident, and independent pet.