Separation Anxiety

Jun 6, 2020   Tracey Aston   Behavior

In our recent blog post Separation Anxiety in Senior Pets, we discussed how separation anxiety can affect senior pets due to joint and mobility issues, sight and hearing loss and possibly canine cognitive dysfunction. However, separation anxiety is not limited to senior pets and pets of all ages can suffer from the effects of separation anxiety and all for very unique reasons.

Separation anxiety is the most common behavioral issues in pets, especially dogs, but it can also be the most difficult. Pets with separation anxiety show signs of anxiety ranging from mild to severe when they separated from their caretaker.  Some pets will start to exhibit signs of anxiety as their owners prepare to leave the house, others will wait until they notice their owner is gone, which is usually fairly quickly.

As separation anxiety is a form of anxiety, it shares the same symptoms such as barking, howling, whining, digging, drooling, chewing, destroying furniture, pacing, trying to escape, urinating or defecating and in extreme cases, even self-injury by digging or chewing at crates and attempting to jump through doors and windows.  Cats will attempt to hide, not eat, withdrawal or show signs of aggression.

While the symptoms of separation anxiety are the same as anxiety from phobias or lack of socialization, the reasons behind separation are very different and that is what makes it much more difficult. A pet parent can be there to help a pet through other phobias, such as noise phobias or anxiety, but separation anxiety, by description, means the pet parent isn't there.

Depending on the severity of the separation anxiety, treating it can range from confidence building to needing medications. The main goal is to help the pet feel confident and comfortable being left alone and to enjoy the experience.

If a pet has a mild case of anxiety, giving them something else to focus on in your absence can help reduce their anxiety. Puzzle games, and mental stimulation and even a Kong with a tasty treat can distract a pet's to your absence and allow them to focus on something positive and to enjoy the experience.  If you do leave toys with your pets, make sure you know they are safe for your pet to use in your absence, such as no small parts that come off and become a choking hazard.

If your pet doesn't get excited about games or toys, work with them to build a positive association with these things. You want the pet to get more excited about the possibility of playing with their favorite toy or having their favorite treat than they are anxious about your possible departure.

A Professional Pet Care Specialist can also help a pet suffering from separation anxiety. A pet sitter will help break up the day for the pet, provide a positive experience your pet can count on and alleviate some of the separation anxiety. In addition, if a pet is getting a walk or playtime, that exercise will burn off some of their pent-up energy.

Moderate or severe cases of separation anxiety require much more work over a longer period of time as a pet's comfort and confidence at being left alone builds. Start out by leaving a pet for very short periods of time and gradually working up to longer periods of time. It's imperative that this process not be rushed, as leaving a pet alone too long too quickly can heighten anxiety and actually make the problem worse.  Start out with 5 minute increments and then when your pet is comfortable; slowly increase the amount of time by 10 minutes.  This is a lengthy process but it can't be rushed and requires a lot of patience on the part of the pet parent. It also helps to realize that pets are creatures of routine and they will notice your routine. If you notice your pet is becoming anxious as you get ready to leave and put on your jacket, attempt to put on your jacket and then sit down for a cup of coffee. This will let your pet know that you don't leave everything you put on your jacket and there is no reason to be anxious.

Severe to critical cases, where a pet may be self-injuring - anxiety medications might help.  Sometimes, something as simple as leaving a TV or radio station on can help alleviate your pet's anxiety. You can also try holistic remedies, some pet parents have luck with a product like Rescue Remedy There are also music CDs made especially to help a pet relax, such as Through a Dog's Ear and WholetonesVictoria Stilwell takes using music to soothe pets a step further with her Canine Noise Phobia SeriesAccording to her website, “The Canine Noise Phobia Series (CNP) is a 4-CD compilation of specialized audio recordings and innovative training protocols specifically designed to reduce and prevent noise phobias and anxiety in dogs.” Always consult with your veterinarian before giving your dog any type of medication.

Crate training can help some dogs by giving them a place of their own to feel safe and secure. Our blog post Crates - Why They Are Important goes into further detail about how to crate train your pet and why dogs feel more comfortable in a den type environment. It's very important to remember, if your pet is digging or biting at the crate, never leave them alone in it until they feel safe. A pet must first see the crate as a positive place before crates can be utilized.

When working with a pet with separation anxiety, never punish, hit or yell at your dog. Your pet is frightened and not trying to be consciously disobedient.  Punishing a pet will only add to their anxiety and stress and they will feed off of your frustration, and you could be making the situation worse.

Separation anxiety doesn't have an easy fix and looking for one will only lead to more frustration on both the part of the pet and pet parent. Helping your pet overcome separation anxiety can be a long process that will require patience and persistence but it can be done! If you have exhausted all efforts on your own, it may be time to hire a pet behaviorist to help.

Certified Professional Pet Sitter
PetTech CPR & First Aid Certified
PPG Badge
Pet Sitters International
National Association of Professional Pet Sitters
Angieslist 2015 Super Servica Award
Angieslist 2016 Super Service Award
Shock Free
Pet First Aid/CPR Certified
Pittsburgh's Professional Pet Sitters Network
Bite Prevention Educator
Doggone Safe
2020 Nextdoor
Fear Free Logo
National Association of Professional Pet Sitters Certification