Help pets overcome separation anxiety

Picture this: It’s Monday morning in the (near) future, and for the first time in a long time, you’re heading out and leaving the pet(s) you love behind. How are they going to handle it? If they had signs of separation anxiety before COVID-19, will the symptoms return and possibly be even more pronounced? And could a pet who never showed signs of separation anxiety in the past exhibit signs now? What can you do?

What is separation anxiety?

That’s a great question. But as Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist Dr. Alexandra Moesta wrote in a recent article, there are a range of factors and it’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint the primary cause.

“Sometimes, signs of separation anxiety are brought about by a sudden change to a dog’s environment like moving to a new house or family, a change to their individual living circumstances, such as spending a lot of time with their human(s) without being left alone, or even the loss of another family pet,” writes Dr. Moesta.

And some pets who have historically suffered from anxiety-related disorders may be more susceptible to being affected again.

Look for signs

Pet separation anxiety can start before you depart. For example, a pet might not want to leave your side, might not eat their breakfast, might pant a lot, and/or might try to leave the house with you. When you do leave, dogs with separation anxiety might whine or bark and might react to noises outside the house that wouldn’t typically concern them when you’re at home. They might also chew or otherwise damage things while you’re gone.

Help the pet you love

Dr. Moesta provides valuable advice about things you can do now if you suspect your dog may be at risk of separation anxiety when you do return to work. Here are some key excerpts:

Keep a consistent, predictable routine and spend some time apart

Tempting as it is to enjoy lots of time with our dogs right now, it is important to establish a predictable routine that somewhat resembles pre-lockdown life. A consistent routine that allows them to predict what’s going to happen next, will go a long way in reducing stress.

This new routine should also include some time away from you and anyone else in your household – but be safe and follow your local stay-at-home guidelines and restrictions. Of course, note that it is important to make sure your dog is comfortable while you’re away.

Use training & enrichment activities

Now is a good time to practice crate training or to teach your dog to go to a mat on cue. Make sure you reinforce calm behaviors and relaxed postures, when you are at home. We often pay attention to our dogs when they are right under our feet but forget to acknowledge them relaxing on their dog bed. So next time your dog relaxes on their bed, make sure to bring a tasty chew to them which they can chew on their bed or to praise them for being calm.

While you are away, make sure to use feeding toys or hide food around the house to help your dog feel comfortable in their home environment and give them something to do.

Stay active

Exercise can help to improve mood and expend pent-up energy during this stressful time. As a side note, exercise has also been linked to higher Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor, which may be one of the many reasons why exercise is so beneficial. Exercise is also an important factor to create a consistent daily routine for your dog.

Keep an eye on their anxiety and adapt your approach

If your dog does begin to display signs of anxiety when you leave them, you can help them feel more comfortable by introducing small absences, even if you are just in another room for short periods of time, to help teach them that time apart is safe. Be sure to practice this when your dog is relaxed, e.g. after a walk or when they have a feeding toy. Only gradually increase the period you’re away and only at the speed your dog is comfortable with – and keep the “hellos” and “goodbyes” low key.

Ask for advice and help

When you do go back to work, you can help manage your dog’s transition by establishing a network of people who can help. Family, friends, dog walkers, and doggie day-care centers can all smooth a return to ‘normality’ for your pet and reduce any worries about their well-being for you. However, if you plan to use these services, plan ahead and start the transition before you have to go back to work full time.

Finally, a special note for cat lovers: It might surprise some of you that cats can suffer from separation anxiety, too. They usually can’t voice their stress quite as boldly as dogs, but they may express themselves through other behavior, including not using the litter box, hiding, and not eating.

For cats and dogs, reducing separation anxiety may take some time for the therapy to be successful. We’re here for you, so give your local Banfield Pet Hospital® a call and we’ll help you get started.

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