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  • Writer's pictureJulie Reisinger, RVT, LATg

Separation Anxiety in Pets

Updated: Sep 11, 2021

There’s an old saying that "every cloud has a silver lining", which essentially means that every sad or difficult situation has a hopeful or positive aspect to it. In regards to the COVID-19 pandemic, the silver lining for many is that we have been able to spend much more time with our loved ones, including our pets. Even though we are far from returning to “normal life”, many places are beginning to ease restrictions, which means people are heading back to work and school.

These dogs are living the dream!

But what about our furry friends who have gotten used to us being around for all or most of the day? If your pet is used to you regularly being away for hours at a time, they may take a few days to readjust to your schedule, but then things will be back to business as usual. But what if your pet doesn’t readjust, or you have gotten a new pet during your down time that doesn’t know your regular routine? You may come home to find your favorite chair destroyed, your bed peed in, or worse! If this is the case, it sounds like your pet may have separation anxiety.

What is separation anxiety?

Basically, it is when an animal becomes so attached to a person (and occasionally other animals) that they get very stressed out when that person leaves, oftentimes to the point of destruction of the home and personal items. Although it is much more common in dogs, cats and other pets can also experience separation anxiety. Occasionally underlying medical problems can be the cause of these issues, especially in older pets, so before deciding that your pet’s issues are caused by separation anxiety, a vet visit may be in order.

This kitty certainly looks like it is plotting destruction

Signs of separation anxiety

Many of the signs of separation anxiety are the same in dogs, cats, and other species, and occur when the animal is left alone*. Your pet may exhibit some or all of these signs, and at varying degrees:

  • Urinating or defecating indoors and/or outside of the litter box (cats seem to especially like going in their owner’s bed)

  • Excessive vocalization (howling/barking, mewling/meowing, etc.) - if you have neighbors in close proximity, ask them about this (if they haven’t already let you know!)

  • Chewing, digging, scratching on household items, including doors and windows

  • Destruction of furniture, pet beds and toys, or items belonging to the owner

  • Pacing, trembling, and/or whining as you are getting ready to leave

  • Excessive self-grooming/licking

  • Exuberant greetings when you return home

*If your pet is displaying these signs when you are home, this is a good indication that there could be something else going on. Schedule an appointment with your vet to ensure there are no health issues.

Although enjoyable, a spa day isn't a long term solution

Treating Separation Anxiety

The good thing about separation anxiety is that it is treatable, often without having to spend money. It may take some time for your pet to fully adjust, so patience and consistency are key, as with any other behavior issue. If you come home to a destroyed house or potty accident, DO NOT punish your pet - this can make things worse since the pet may believe that your return leads to punishment, so they become even MORE anxious that you are leaving. Instead, try the following:

Whatever your daily activities are, make them into a routine: This is the most important thing you can do for your pet. A regular routine will help your pet to know that although you may be leaving, you’ll also be coming back. It also helps them to know “this is what time I get fed, what time I go to bed, etc.” The great thing about most pets is that they can conform to almost any lifestyle, as long as it is consistent. Much like children, pets do well with structure - yes, even cats!

Cat perches and towers are excellent enrichment items!

Make sure your pets get plenty of exercise: Many behavior issues are caused by a lack of exercise, especially in young animals and energetic breeds. Your pet’s exercise requirements will vary, but having good, quality playtime with their people is a must! Keep in mind that some exercise is more stimulating than others, and will have a greater effect on your pet. For example, a 45 minute walk on a trail is much more stimulating to your dog than 45 minutes of tossing a ball in the backyard, no matter how much your dog may love playing ball, because it stimulates more of their senses by introducing them to new sights, scents, and sounds. Likewise, giving your cat a puzzle feeder filled with some kibble and treats will be much more stimulating than playing with a string, because it requires them to use their brains (and they get rewards for doing so). As you can see from these examples, the quality of the exercise is just as important as the quantity of exercise. A tired pet is a happy pet!

Your dog just wants you to be happy, so start by setting them up for success!

Set your pet up for success: This is very similar to childproofing a home, except it is something that is done daily as a prevention method. Make sure that no personal items are left out (shoes, kids’ toys, etc.); trash cans are inaccessible or have lids your pet can’t open; cables/cords are out of reach (this can be more difficult with cats than with dogs); and access to any areas you don’t want your pet in are secured, either by simply closing the door to that area or utilizing pet gates. You can also leave a TV or radio playing for your pet, but make sure that the volume isn’t too high - pets have much better hearing than we do, and in the case of apartment living, your neighbors should also be considered. In addition, you’ll want to make sure your pet can access things to keep them occupied (toys, cat towers/perches, etc.), as well as fresh water. Some pets can be left with food and some can’t, but pets should always have access to water. Part of setting your pet up for success is also making sure their bathroom needs are met - in the case of dogs, make sure they poop/pee outside before you leave, and take them out right when you get home. If you have a puppy, small breed, senior, or dog with health issues, they may need more frequent bathroom breaks during the day than the average healthy adult. For cats, make sure the litter box is scooped/cleaned before leaving, and in the case of multiple cats, that you have enough litter boxes (standard is one per cat, plus an extra).

Did you know that SLV Pet Care offers drop-in visits, walks, and Dog Adventures? Check out our services page to see how we can help you ease your pet's anxieties!

This kitty is resting peacefully, knowing that it's owner will always come back

Behavior Training/Desensitization: Some pets respond well with only the items mentioned above, but other pets may require more to ease their anxiety. This is where behavior training and desensitization come into play, and while we don’t have the expertise to go into it here, we highly recommend finding a behavior trainer (local veterinarians and animal shelters can be great resources). You can find overviews and tips for desensitization online; this one is directed towards cats (and has a lot of good info on separation anxiety in cats), and this one by the ASPCA is for dogs (BONUS: it has a link on how to find a trainer).

Here are more helpful resources for learning about separation anxiety, how it affects your pet, and how to help your pet:

Thanks for reading, and stay safe out there! For tips on how to keep your pets safe in the heat, check out our blog Summer Safety for Pets, and for staying safe while hiking, check out Tips for Hitting the Trails with Your Dog!



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