When you leave your pet behind to go to work or run errands, who is more upset—you, or your furry pal? Although we sometimes seem to have separation issues from our pets, separation anxiety in pets is a true medical condition that can cause mental and physical issues. After spending so much time quarantined together during the COVID-19 pandemic, pets more likely will have developed separation anxiety. For example, many families welcomed a new puppy while under quarantine, thinking it would be the perfect time to devote to training, play, and bonding. However, these “pandemic puppies” have never been left alone and have likely received inadequate socialization and limited training, since so much was shut down.
As people slowly head back to work or school, pets are having to learn how to cope with being left alone, and some are not handling it well, and displaying significant separation anxiety signs. If you think your furry pal has separation anxiety, look for the answers to your questions below, or contact your family veterinarian.
Question: What causes separation anxiety in pets?
Answer: No single reason explains why pets develop separation anxiety. Rather, there are several possibilities, including:
- Change of guardian or family
- Abrupt change in schedule or environment
- Change in household members
- Genetic predisposition
Separation anxiety is not considered an inherited condition, but can appear in family lines of pets who suffer from generalized stress and anxiety. And, puppies are more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders if their mother experienced stress or anxiety during their development. Thus, improper nature and nurture scenarios that have created disturbances in a pet’s life may cause separation anxiety.
Q: How will I know if my pet has separation anxiety?
A: Separation anxiety signs cover a wide spectrum. Some pets may show few visible signs, while others are destructive and dangerous. Common separation anxiety signs in pets include:
- Clingy behavior
- Generalized anxiety
- Excessive vocalization, such as whining, whimpering, howling, barking, or meowing
- Inappropriate elimination
- Chewing, digging, or other destructive behavior
Pets with separation anxiety often exhibit particularly clingy behavior when their owner is getting ready to leave. They will shadow their owner closely, and may begin whining and whimpering when they notice jackets, shoes, purses, and keys.
Q: How is separation anxiety diagnosed in pets?
A: Separation anxiety can be difficult to detect in pets, especially if it’s subtle, or if the pet lacks proper house or crate training. Video evaluation is the easiest way for your primary care veterinarian to diagnose your pet with separation anxiety. Set up a camera where your pet spends most of their time in your home, to catch their behavior when you’re gone. Your veterinarian can then evaluate how your pet behaves while alone, and diagnose separation anxiety, or recommend diagnostic testing for other conditions.
Q: Can my primary care veterinarian help my pet’s separation anxiety?
A: Separation anxiety management can be tricky, and some general practice veterinarians prefer to refer behavior issues to a veterinary behaviorist for specialized care. But, your veterinarian will likely make suggestions regarding environmental and behavior modification to help ease your pet’s anxiety. In moderate to severe cases, they may also prescribe anxiolytic medications, supplements, or diets.
Q: What can I do at home to manage my pet’s separation anxiety?
A: Separation anxiety can take time and patience to control, and working with your primary care veterinarian, or a veterinary behaviorist to develop a treatment plan tailored to your pet’s needs, is best. However, you can take some actions yourself to help soothe your pet’s anxiety. One key is uncoupling your pre-departure cues (i.e., the steps you take before leaving, such as putting on your shoes, picking up your keys, or grabbing your purse or wallet). Your pet has learned these cues mean your absence is imminent, so take the time to perform these actions without leaving home. Put on your shoes and then sit down to watch TV. Pick up your keys and take them into the kitchen while you wash dishes. In time, your pet will stop getting anxious when they see these actions. For an in-depth guide on teaching your pet to dissociate these cues from your departure, follow the ASPCA’s guide.
Q: What if my pet’s separation anxiety is difficult to manage?
A: As you’re working through your pet’s separation anxiety, whether with training, medication, or a combination, your furry pal may need extra help while you’re gone. Pets who are destructive or who may injure themselves should be supervised until their separation anxiety is manageable. In these cases, hire a pet sitter, take your dog to doggy daycare, or take your pet to work, if possible.
Separation anxiety in pets is a condition best left to your primary care veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist. But, our Pet Emergency Clinic and Referral Center team is always here for you if your pet experiences a severe separation anxiety attack and is injured while home alone at night or on the weekends. Give us a call for help.