Is Your Pet Experiencing Separation Anxiety?

Posted by Emily Piccirillo on

Pandemic Predicament

When the world was plunged into Covid lockdown last year, pet adoptions soared — a welcome antidote to the collective difficulties we were facing. Whether new or established family members, our furry friends delivered relief and distraction from the stress and frustration of the restrictions, but many of them are struggling to adapt as the pandemic restrictions are being relaxed. The sad irony is that now they’re the ones facing social isolation because their people are returning to workplaces and schools and spending more leisure time outside the home.

As the modified routines that we established early in the pandemic begin to change again, we’re leaving our pets alone for longer stretches. This disruption naturally causes fear and confusion for them and separation anxiety can occur. Because pets benefit from predictability in their lives, this trend is likely to be true for all close companion animals to varying degrees.

Furthermore, it’s worth noting that younger new furry family members are especially vulnerable to separation anxiety because they’ve had limited opportunity for socialization beyond the few contacts who have served as near-constant company. Yet, for older adoptees from shelters, they can also be inclined to separation anxiety if they have a history of losing familiar people when they were surrendered. In addition to missing their presence, pets are suddenly meeting strangers of various species — this exposure presents its own unique challenges and compounds their struggle.

Preparation Matters

Pets tend to be highly attuned to us and can seem downright telepathic regarding subtle shifts in our habits and moods. And let’s face it, we’re all likely to be suffering from some degree of Covid fatigue and therefore we’re at higher risk for worry and impatience. In response, it will make a world of difference if we can plan and gain effective skills to responsibly address our pets’ separation anxiety. It's our responsibility to help therm cope. When we adopt effective behavioral strategies around being absent, our pets in turn learn to adapt, develop resilience, and continue to grow strong, positive bonds with their loved ones.

In Unison

Finally, let's acknowledge that it’s normal for you to also experience separation anxiety when you leave your pet! As a result, it’s quite possible that your ambivalence may interfere with the cues and messages you’re trying to send. It’s important to be in touch with such feelings so you can resist the temptation to indulge in counterproductive (albeit well-meaning) habits — and instead to be consistent with the proactive support you provide through this latest transition. We'll all be happier for it!

Distress Signals

Here is a list of some compulsive and concerning behaviors that are potential signs that your pet is experiencing separation anxiety. Keep in mind that depending on your pet’s age, breed, history, and personality, these distress signals could also point to a different behavioral issue or a medical concern that needs the attention of your veterinarian. So, it's often wise to enlist their seasoned guidance in sorting out the reasons and responses.

When your pet is in your presence

🐾 Blocking your exit
🐾 Extreme clinginess or neediness
🐾 Withdrawing or hiding
🐾 Irritability, reactivity and outbursts
🐾 Trembling, and dilated pupils
🐾 Changes in appetite or digestive issues

    When your pet is alone; however, these behaviors may begin as your pet anticipates your exit

    🐾 Persistent barking, howling, meowing, whimpering,
         whining, yawning, panting, or drooling for no apparent reason
    🐾 Pacing back and forth or in circles
    🐾 Scratching or chewing on furniture, shoes, or clothing
    🐾 Digging at or destroying doors and window frames in a
         frantic effort to escape. These behaviors can result in self-injury,
    🐾 such as broken teeth and damaged paws or nails.
    🐾 Excessive licking or chewing on themselves until the skin is raw or broken
    🐾 Doing their “business” in unwelcome places after being fully potty trained

      Responding to Mild Separation Anxiety

      Here are some strategies to consider for mild separation anxiety as you navigate the transition. Your goal is to teach your pet to enjoy, or at least be comfortable with being alone. Since you know your pet best, you can choose those that suit your relationship best.

      Be patient and compassionate — your pet is struggling with all the uncertainty and needs your help, not punishment.

      • Start early and gradually shift your routine to build your pet's alone time and avoid sudden changes if possible. Start with very brief separations inside your home, like having them sit outside a bedroom or bathroom door when they know you’re on the other side. Slowly increase the intervals of time they are left on their own.

      Avoid making a fuss (big displays of affection, praise, reassurance, or apology) when you depart or arrive in order to minimize their reactivity. Drama is counter-productive to your goals — you want your pets to experience the transition as no big deal.

      • Make sure to give them adequate exercise, play, and mental stimulation in order to burn excess energy before leaving them along.

      Provide their favorite toys (especially something durable and engaging for dogs).

      • Prepare an “occupier” treat, such as yogurt or peanut butter you’ve stuffed into a food puzzle or frozen in a Kong@ for dogs, or a fresh catnip product for cats.

      Leave a TV on with programming that includes human voices or a show created specifically for pets to watch as entertainment. Another helpful option is relaxing background music.

      • Place a piece of clothing that you have worn recently in a prominent, accessible place. Your scent will have a soothing effect.

      A natural stress-reduction supplement, vet-prescribed medication, or natural pheromone diffuser can help to calm their nerves. CBD might also be helpful if your vet advises it.

      • If your budget allows, consider incorporating pet day care, sitters, or walkers to extend their community.

      Set up a camera if you’re curious about what they’re up to when they’re on their own. Some come with a laser pointer or treats that you can dispense.

      • Ask your employer or team about developing a policy that allows pets in the workplace.

      Factor in use of a crate as a possible safe space, depending on your pet’s experience and perception of one.

      Responding to Moderate to Severe Anxiety

      ❤️ It's definitely time to call in back-up, so talk with your vet! They have lots of expert insights, pointers, and personalized solutions to offer. Plus, the ASPCA has helpful recommendations on its website.

      ❤️ Try to identify your own behaviors that trigger the first signs of anxiety in your pet (often displayed as agitation or despondency) and turn them into low-key activities to introduce a basic form of desensitization. For example, if they occur when you pick up your purse, practice moving it several times and leaving it in new places over a few hours. Similarly, put on your coat or shoes earlier than usual but stay home instead of leaving right away. Try starting your car’s engine and then turning it off and walking back inside for a little while. Switch up the sequence of actions prior to your departure to gradually deprogram them from escalating. A Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) can help with this process. 

      ❤️ Utilizing a more complex counterconditioning program tends to be very effective for treating moderate to severe separation anxiety. However, this incremental approach can be tricky to implement so it’s recommended that you consult with a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) for their specialized guidance. Here’s the snapshot — you gradually teach your pet to associate something they like with something unpleasant or feared so they can relax in its presence.

      Above All

      As with good parenting of human kids, self-care is essential to the adults' well-being as we do our best to raise our pets. It’s important to incorporate our favorite rest, relaxation, and creative activities into our daily lives to prevent burnout, such as exercise, mindfulness, body work, fun self-expression, time in nature, and social connections. Likewise, it’s best to avoid those activities that tend to exacerbate our stress response, such as doom scrolling, sedentary habits, and boredom. And there's always the option to reach out to a dear friend or counselor who can help you through this difficult time.

      I wish you all the best as you and your pets get used to the increased freedom as Covid restrictions relax! Feel free to share your insights and feedback here.

      Take Care! ~Emily

      Please note: RemembeRing content is for informational purposes only and not intended to replace veterinary or mental health care. Be sure to reach out to your providers for their expertise as needed. 

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