Treating your pet’s separation anxiety

My late, great dog Bucky, suffered from many types of anxiety — separation anxiety being one of them. In his last five years of life, he benefited greatly from advice and treatment given to us by his veterinary behaviorist, Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB. I am delighted to offer the following information as a pet lifestyle expert, but I encourage any of you whose pet may be suffering from symptoms of separation (or noise, or storm) anxiety to seek the professional advice of a board certified veterinary behaviorist right away. Visit Florida Veterinary Behavior Service for a list of FAQs and an explanation of why it’s beneficial for your pet to see a board certified veterinary behaviorist.

Separation anxiety is an enormous problem to an estimated 10 percent of all puppies and older dogs. Pets with separation anxiety typically exhibit distress and behavioral problems when they’re left alone. Ironically, it is a major reason that dogs end up in animal shelters.

Anxiety may manifest itself in your dog digging and scratching at doors or windows in an attempt to reunite with you, destructive chewing, howling, barking, whining, urination, and defecation (even with otherwise housetrained dogs).

Most people are familiar with separation anxiety in dogs, but are surprised to hear that it affects cats as well. Typically thought of as loners — with seemingly aloof or indifferent personalities — cats are actually very social creatures that form strong bonds with people and can suffer just as badly from separation anxiety as their canine counterparts.

I have heard many cat parents joke that their cat punishes them when he is left alone, but out-of-the-ordinary behavior may be a sign that your kitty is suffering from separation anxiety. Some cats become agitated when their pet parent prepares to leave, while others seem anxious or depressed. Many become destructive when left alone and may urinate, defecate, scratch furniture or hide in closets or other small areas. Cats may also show their distress in other, less obvious ways such as vomiting or becoming too anxious to eat. Excessive grooming, to the point of creating a bald spot on areas of the body, is also a sign that a cat is suffering from separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety may be triggered when an animal accustomed to constant human companionship is left alone for the first time or when there is a change in the family’s routine. Traumatic events that affect humans, such as the loss of a family member or another pet, can trigger anxiety, and so can events that we humans might not consider traumatic, but from your pet’s viewpoint are devastating, such as time at a shelter, kennel or vet’s office.

Is it separation anxiety? If most, or all, of the following statements are true about your pet, he may have a separation anxiety problem:

  • The behavior occurs primarily when your pet is left alone — for both short or long periods — and typically begins soon after you leave.
  • Your pet follows you from room to room whenever you’re home.
  • Your pet displays effusive, frantic greeting behaviors.
  • Your pet reacts with excitement, depression, or anxiety to your preparations to leave the house.

When treating separation anxiety — no matter if your pet is of the canine or feline variety — the goal is to resolve the animal’s underlying anxiety by teaching it to not fear, or at least to tolerate, being left alone. The whole family needs to be involved in treatment because there will be a lot of training involved and each member of the family needs to be on the same page. Please remember your pet is truly panicking and not being spiteful or mean. Revenge truly isn’t on your pet’s agenda!

I wish I could say separation anxiety is an easy fix, but the truth is, it can be a very difficult and time consuming problem to turn around. Here are a few tips to help you along:

Check with your vet. The first step is to discuss the situation with your veterinarian and have your pet undergo a complete physical examination. It is important to rule out any underlying physical problems that may be causing this behavior.

Short term fixes:

  • Avoid leaving your pet home alone. Make use of pet daycare, a boarding facility or a veterinary clinic so your pet isn’t left home alone to panic.
  • Leave your pet with a friend, family member, or neighbor when you’re away.
  • Take your pet to work with you, if possible.

Offer a special treat. Every time you leave the house, offer your pet a favorite chew, treat or toy. Be sure to remove these special toys as soon as you return home so that your pet only has access to them when he is by himself. He will soon learn to associate your absence with a good thing.

Spice up your pet’s environment. A cozy window perch with a view of the outdoors can be awfully entertaining to a bored kitty. Carpeted kitty towers with attached toys can be lots of fun as well. You can also try leaving a radio or television on, as soothing music or talk can be quite comforting to animals. Some pets may be less anxious with another animal in the house, so consider adopting a playmate.

Increase playtime. Exercising your pet’s mind and body can greatly enrich his life, decrease stress and provide appropriate outlets for normal behavior. Additionally, a physically and mentally tired pet doesn’t have much excess energy to expend when left alone. So bring out the feathered cat chasers, laser pointers and bell-filled balls for the cat and take the dog outside for an extra long walk or to play a rowdy game of fetch!

Teach independence. If you’re a dog owner, consider teaching Fido to stay on his bed or a special rug and practice in-home separations where he must first stay a few inches away from you, gradually working up to several feet. The “stay” command should only last a few seconds at first but you can work up to several minutes before releasing your dog and giving him a special treat. This is something you can practice while you’re getting ready for work in the morning. Make Fido stay on his bed while you’re putting on make up or shaving.

Reinforce good behavior. Don’t make a big deal about your departure or arrival. As tough as it may be when your pet begs for attention, ignore him for 15 minutes before leaving and after arriving home. Not comforting your pet until he has calmed down will help reinforce good behavior and teach him that your coming and going is no big deal.

Help your pet get used to your departing behaviors. On days you do not go to work, go through the normal workday routines of getting ready, but don’t leave the house. This will help your pet learn not to react to the behavior. Try rattling your keys but don’t get up to leave. And when your pet stops reacting to this behavior, try rattling your keys and walking to the door, but don’t leave the house. Work up to being able to do all these behaviors without your pet reacting.

Plan gradual departures. Do not try this on a work day but rather on a weekend. Pretend you are getting ready for work (go through your normal routine) and leave for a few seconds. When your pet doesn’t react, increase the time you’re away to one minute, then two minutes, then three minutes, etc. Work your way up to leaving your pet for longer periods of time, but go very slowly.

Consider medications. There are over-the-counter calming products that may reduce fearfulness in pets, but animals that are severely distraught by any separation from their pet parents may require prescription anti-anxiety medication. Speak with your veterinarian about this option. A good anti-anxiety drug shouldn’t sedate your pet, but simply reduce his overall anxiety.

Consider counseling. Tried it all and still come home to shredded curtains? It’s time to consult a professional animal behavior specialist for assistance in resolving your pet’s issues.

What won’t help. Remember that the destruction of your home that often occurs with separation anxiety isn’t your pet’s way of seeking revenge for being left alone; it’s part of a panicked response. Therefore punishment isn’t effective for treating separation anxiety and can even make the situation worse.

If your dog becomes anxious inside a crate, he may urinate, defecate, howl or even injure himself in an attempt to escape. If you must confine your pet, consider a “safe place” — a room with a window and distractions — instead of a crate.

While obedience training is always a good idea, separation anxiety in pets is not the result of disobedience or lack of training, so probably won’t help this particular problem.

It’s important to point out that treatment of separation anxiety is a highly individualized process because each animal has a different level of anxiety and unique coping mechanisms. For most animals, separation anxiety gets worse as time goes on, so if you have started to see the telltale signs manifest themselves in your kitty or pooch, I encourage you to begin treating them as soon as possible. It will be better for everyone in the long run!