The pandemic has certainly changed a few things in our normal day to day lives. A lot of us are at home more often, allowing us to spend more time with our beloved pets. Our furry friends have benefited greatly from this. Having us home means more time for cuddles, play, and most importantly, treats! But what will happen when restrictions lift, and we start going out and working in the office again? Our pets have been so used to our constant presence and to suddenly start not being around can lead them to develop something veterinarians call separation anxiety.
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety, in dogs specifically, stems from their unique bond with us. If this bond becomes too strong or unhealthy, our furry friends can experience extreme anxiety and even panic when we are gone. So, how do you know if your pet is developing separation anxiety? The signs most associated with this specific disorder include vocalizing, salivation, destructive behavior, urination or defecation indoors/in unwanted locations, lack of appetite when alone, self-trauma like licking or chewing when alone, and attempted and/or successful escapes.
How do pets develop separation anxiety?
The most common reasons our loved ones develop this disorder is a new guardian or family, new household member, or a change in residence or schedule. Abrupt changes in schedule, in terms of how long our furry friends are left alone, can trigger the development of separation anxiety. As you might have guessed, our transition back into the office for work will do just that.
How to identify stress in your dog or cat.
Stress is the first sign that something is going on with your pet. It can show itself differently in cats and dogs. These are some of the most common signs as defined by the VCA:
The most common body language signs in dogs: refusing treats, taking treats roughly when normally gentle, dilated pupils/wide eyes, furrowed brows, pacing, panting when not hot, shaking off when not wet, licking lips in the absence of food, looking/moving away from stressors, tail held low or tucked, head held low, looking away or moving away, being overly solicitous, attention-seeking (jumping, pawing, licking), fidgety (cannot settle), moving slower than normal, tense muscles, trembling, and vocalization.
The most common body language signs in cats: refusing treats, taking treats roughly when normally gentle, dilated pupils/wide eyes, furrowed brows, head lowered, ears held to the side or back, whiskers held flat to the cheek or far forward, moving away/desiring to escape from stressors, fast breathing without exercise, tail held close to their body, attention-seeking (rubbing, climbing, scratching), crouching, leaning away, and swishing tail.
These are just some of the signs of stress. If you suspect something is going on with your pet that is worrisome, contact your vet.
So how can we help our companions? What can we do to help them cope with our absence?
Here are some things you can do!
Consult your vet.
Of course, the best thing you can do for your companion is consulting your vet, as mentioned above. They will be able to accurately diagnose whether your pet has separation anxiety. Because remember, signs of stress, or any of those previously listed symptoms, can also be linked to any type of medical condition. Other than helping to diagnose separation anxiety, your vet is a good resource for how to cope with and handle this disorder. A vet can prescribe medicine if their anxiety is especially severe. They can also help you develop a routine, practice and implement any coping exercises, and provide additional advice specific to your pet’s needs.
Developing a routine.
Pets need their daily needs met to maintain a healthy life mentally and physically. This includes proper nutrition, medical care, grooming, and physical activity. Developing a routine in how these needs are met and can increase predictability and provide stability in their life. Understandably, it is hard to keep a proper routine during the pandemic with so much uncertainty and change. But your routine does not need to be strict. You do not need to do the same activities at the same time every day. Just be sure to make time for each activity every day. Maintaining some form of a routine will help protect against any stress they might develop being separated from you.
Teaching our pets to be on their own helps build their coping skills and their adaptability. If we can teach them to be comfortable on their own, then they will not develop anxiety when their schedule changes. One way we can do this is by building time into the day for your pet to nap or relax without any planned interaction.
Designate an area for your pet to have downtime, whether it be a bed, a favorite blanket, or even their crate. Next, give them a chew, food dispensing toy, stuffed treat holder, or meal in their downtime location. If your pet is comfortable, then go ahead and give them their food and leave them be while you go and do something else. If your pet shows any signs of discomfort, such as any of the ones listed above, then stop the exercise and start again slowly.
To build this downtime exercise, start by staying near the designated downtime area. Encourage them to interact with the food toy or meal by their mat or bed and reward them when they do. As your pet starts to become comfortable, start increasing the distance between you and their downtime area. Doing these small exercises can help build and maintain the habit of spending time alone.
No Drama or Departure cues.
When we go to leave, we have our own routine. We put on our shoes, pick up our wallet or purse, and jingle our keys. This sends signals to our pets that we are leaving. Even if you are stuck at home, occasionally do things like picking up and jingling your keys. Put on your shoes or running clothes and then get situated on the couch and watch a movie. Try to avoid pairing these specific actions with leaving. By breaking the link between these departure cues and leaving, you will reduce the anxiety your pet has about being left alone. When you leave, and even when you return, do not make a huge deal out of it. Be calm, reassuring, and relaxed. If you act sad when you leave, or overly excited when you see them again, it will only increase their anxiety about you leaving.
One of the ways we can make them more comfortable in our absences is to “practice” these separations. Start by doing this for a few seconds or minutes each day to assess how your pet reacts. This can help teach them that being alone is a good thing. What you will want to do is select a place where your pet will be safe, say “I’ll be back,” toss them a treat or a favorite toy, and then go to a place where your pet can not see or get to you. Again, start small and increase to longer stretches of time. If you worry that your companion is not comfortable being alone, you can always set up a webcam or video camera to check on how they are doing.
Things that won’t help.
Now that we have talked about things that will help your pet acclimate to your departure, here are some things you should avoid doing:
Never punish your pet for having separation anxiety. Yelling or getting frustrated with them can make the situation worse.
Getting your pet, a companion.
While this might seem like the perfect solution, this will not help. Their anxiety is based on their separation from you and not being alone.
Crating your dog.
While some dogs find comfort in being in their crate, this is not the solution for all dogs. They will still engage in anxiety responses inside the crate. It will just be in a confined space as opposed to your house. Instead, create other safe spaces as discussed above.
Leaving the radio or TV on.
Background noise while you are gone does not help; it will not distract them from their anxiety.
While helpful in other instances, obedience training does not solve the root of the problem. Your pet’s separation anxiety is not a result of disobedience or lack of training.
Separation anxiety is something that can be treated and even prevented. Practicing any number of those exercises and implementing a routine for your furry friend can help prevent any headaches down the road as we transition back into a “normal” routine. Be patient with them, as this is not something that can be solved overnight. It will take time for your furry friend to become comfortable in your absence. So, start doing little things to help your pet become used to your absence while we are stuck at home. It will make the transition easier for them and you!