Separation Anxiety in Pets: Your Questions Answered

Nov 7, 2020 / Behavior

[dog looking anxiously out window]

Change is hard; be patient

Among the innumerable consequences of the nation sheltering in place during the pandemic, perhaps one of the nicest was the surge in pet adoptions. But, as first-time pet owners returned to their daily routine of work or school after an extended time at home with their animal, some discovered that the change in routine led to signs of separation anxiety in their pets.

[Loukia Agapis]

Dr. Loukia Agapis is the director of the Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Loukia Agapis teaches shelter medicine and serves as coordinator of international programs at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. She recently answered questions new pet owners might have about separation anxiety, now that their pet is more frequently left alone.

In a nutshell, she advises pet owners to make leaving fun, provide an enriched environment, keep reunions low-key, train pets to be more independent, and seek therapeutic medication if needed. Her biggest recommendation for transitioning to an everyday work and school routine: Be patient.

What behaviors indicate a diagnosis of separation anxiety?

According to Dr. Agapis, signs of separation anxiety differ between cats and dogs. The behaviors seen in dogs include: following their owner; pre-departure anxiety; vocalization; destructive behavior, such as chewing and biting; inappropriate elimination; pacing; frantic attempts to escape; self-destructive behavior; salivation; vomiting; lack of appetite for no medical reason; and exuberant greeting when their owner returns.

While the criteria for cat diagnosis has not been clearly defined, some behaviors seen in cats with separation anxiety include: inappropriate urination or defecation (often on personal items like clothing or the bed); excessive vocalization, such as loud, persistent meowing; eating too fast or not at all; vomiting; excessive grooming; destructiveness, such as shredding curtains or furniture with claws or knocking over objects; and exuberant greeting when their owner returns.

Why do pets get anxious when we leave?

“Separation anxiety is particularly common among animals that have been rehomed multiple times,” notes Dr. Agapis. “However, it can develop in any pet, no matter their background. One study reported that 80 percent of dogs have elevated stress hormones when left alone. Any disruption in routine may trigger anxiety in your pet; examples include the loss of a companion, a geographical move, a change in the owner’s schedule, or even a hospitalization.”

How do I know that my pet’s problem is due to separation anxiety?

Dr. Agapis stresses the importance of distinguishing between separation anxiety and other behavioral problems. Many other conditions, such as barrier frustration, storm phobias, lack of mental stimulation, destructive behaviors when a puppy is teething (around 6 to 8 months of age), exploratory behavior, and underlying medical problems, could be the cause of the behavior.

“For example, your kitty may not be using the litter box all the time due to a bladder problem—or because the litter box is not clean,” she says. To rule out medical causes, owners should consult their veterinarian about the pet’s symptoms.

Many dogs with separation anxiety also have noise or thunderstorm phobia, which may complicate the diagnosis and treatment. According to Dr. Agapis, separation anxiety is a distress behavior that happens every time the dog is alone; the dog will not display these behaviors in the owner’s presence. Noise and storm phobias, on the other hand, arise in response to those triggers.

If I adopted an older pet, are they less prone to separation anxiety?

“In dogs, the onset of separation anxiety most commonly appears before 2 years of age. Occurrence is less frequent as dogs get older,” says Dr. Agapis, “until they reach their senior years, when age-related changes may make them feel more vulnerable.”

Don’t despair if your adoptee shows signs of separation anxiety, however! Dr. Agapis says, “There are steps we can take. The prognosis for resolution is good if onset is recent and owners are willing to work with their pet.”

Should I leave my pet in a crate or kennel while I am gone?

“Just like we don’t want to be confined to a closet or bathroom for several hours, neither do our pets,” Dr. Agapis says. “We may allow them to be in a restricted area. Choose an easily cleaned room, such as a kitchen. I recommend leaving the pet’s crate open, with a soft bed and a toy inside, to provide a comfortable resting place during the day.”

Is it possible to prevent damage to my home without kenneling my pet?

“Yes! It helps if pet owners create an enrichment-filled environment that appeals to the five senses,” advises Dr. Agapis. “For example, consider putting on video or audio streaming designed to relax and entertain dogs. Give your pet a great view of the outdoors so they can watch birds and squirrels going by. Get a variety of food-dispensing toys, taste-enhanced toys, and puzzle toys and give the pet access to the toy only when you are out. The toy should be picked up immediately upon your return. Rotate which toy you offer to keep the pet’s interest up. You can also add novel scents, such as vanilla or other animal scents to the toys. Lastly, feed your pet their morning meal right as you are leaving.”

What should be done before departures?

“At one time, owners were advised to desensitize their pet to cues that the owner was about to leave, either by not following the same patterns before leaving or by avoiding the pet when departing,” says Dr. Agapis. “Often, however, pets quickly learn our new departure cues.”

Dr. Agapis has little confidence in the strategy of gradually increasing the length of time the owner is away. “This is very time-consuming and, once again, the intervention often fails,” she says.

“To me the best advice is to provide exercise to your pet in the morning and withhold breakfast until you depart. Pet owners should also act happy as they are leaving. Do not communicate your sadness or worry to your pet.”

How do I behave towards my pet if I come home to a mess?

According to Dr. Agapis, owners should never punish their pet for bad behavior that occurred while the owner was away.

My pet is okay with me running to the store for 30 minutes. Does that mean my pet will not have separation anxiety when I leave the house for 8 hours?

“Most dogs with separation anxiety display those behaviors within minutes of being left alone,” says Dr. Agapis. “However, doggy day care, boarding at veterinary clinic, or accompanying the owner to work should be considered as an alternative to routinely leaving a dog home alone for an extended time. In Sweden, it is actually illegal to leave your dog home alone for over 6 hours.

“Cats demonstrate separation anxiety primarily when their owners are away for a few days, not during the typical workday. During extended absences, cats may benefit from a professional pet sitter stopping by twice daily for play sessions or even for overnight stays.”

My pet was fine when I left for work, but when I came back, she did not want to be away from me. Should I discourage this behavior?

“What pet owners do when they are home is key. That is the time we can teach our pets to be more independent,” advises Dr. Agapis “You do not want to feed into your pet’s problem. Ignore demanding, attention-seeking behavior and reward calm, independent behavior. Provide plenty of exercise and off-leash time for dogs. An additional step is to get your pet off your bed at night and, instead, have them sleep in a bed next to yours.”

When should I consider drug therapy for dogs? Cats?

“Separation anxiety is a reason people relinquish dogs to an animal shelter. I would encourage owners who have exhausted other approaches to speak with a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist about possible medications for your pet to aid your efforts to relieve this common problem. Medication may only be needed for a temporary period to get over a hump.”

Are there alternatives to drug therapy?

“Synthetic pheromones may help. Acupuncture may be a useful alternative as well, but more research is needed in this area,” says Dr. Agapis.

By Crystal Munguia

Featured image by Amit Karkare from Pixabay