Separation anxiety and your pet; return to a routine may not be fun for all!

Yesterday I received my second Covid-19 vaccine. With that, I hold visions of restaurant dining, local music with wine, food, and friends, and browsing in a store. I imagine hugging my friends again and chatting with maskless strangers in a crowd!

We are all so ready to be free to just “go”. Go on a plane, go to a beach, go back to work. Many of us will leave our zoom meetings behind, join the line at Starbucks again, and the morning commute. Also for the first time in more than a year, many of us will leave our pets.

For many, the pandemic has meant more time within our own “4 walls”, more time with our dogs and cats.

But, with this extra time at home, the extra snuggles and extended naps at your feet, regular walks during the day, and a tidbit while we eat lunch, we have established new routines our pets have accepted as reality.

A wonderful side benefit of the pandemic has been the surge in shelter adoption rates of pets. Those animals arrived in homes brimming with people’s time and attention to their benefit. These new family member pets quite expect you to stay home always!

As a Veterinarian, I am bracing for a surge in separation anxiety behaviors in pets as owners return to previous routines away from the home.

Separation anxiety is a common reason for pets to be relinquished to shelters and Veterinary Behaviorists estimate 20-40% of their cases involve separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is frustration leading to unwanted or unsafe behaviors exhibited by a pet when left alone. These can vary from barking incessantly (your neighbors will let you know) to the destruction of property. Tearing up toys, sofas, and even walls as a result of escalating anxiety in unsupervised dogs can be dangerous and expensive. Cats can overgroom, hide or eliminate inappropriately.

Recognizing the signs of frustration and anxiety can help you understand your pet needs help before they become established in anxiety behaviors. Drooling, panting, pacing, whining, licking and barking can all be signs. The facial expression of an anxious dog often resembles the same in a person, with tight lips and wide eyes.

Cats can be more subtle, but changes in normal behaviors are a tip-off. Hiding, aggression, sleeping more (I know! They are champion snoozers, but still!) urinating or pooping outside of the box, increased vocalization, or following their human around are all potential signs of anxiety. Overgrooming, typically the belly, by licking the hair off is another sign of high anxiety.

To get started on preventing separation anxiety, begin well in advance of your expected return to routines. Begin by modifying your behavior so your pet has regular time away from you. Give your pet their “own room” either with a kennel or for those that don’t adapt to confinement, gating them in a safe space.

Be aware that your pet may not think it is a great idea at first! They will often not understand your intention and begin to demand attention. It is important for you to remember this is training. So only reward the pet for good behavior. When they go into the kennel, reward them. When your dog is quiet and calm, they can be released to be with you again.

Slowly increase the time spent away from your pet, and remember to not telegraph your departure by excited or high-pitched speaking. When you leave, pretend you are just taking out the trash and will be right back. This casualness will allow your pet to more readily accept your departure. And, when you return, be very calm and quiet until your pet has done something worthy of reward- like urinating outside or chasing a toy. Then your joy will seem to your pet to come from their performance instead of joy at your return.

Notice what you do before leaving that can trigger anxiety. If, for instance, before leaving you to pour a to-go cup of tea, pick up your purse, find your keys, and start talking to your pet “ByebyebabygirlmummielovesyoubesogoodwhileI’mgone!!” in a high pitched tone, you may be increasing their anxiety with each move until when you actually walk out the door they are in a fever of despair! Instead, try changing these things, or doing them during unusual times of the day. Pick up your keys and go sit down. Take your purse out to the car and then come back a few minutes later. And, by all means, stop the “wiggy wiggy” speeches on your way out the door or when you return!

If you notice anxious behaviors, consult your veterinarian first. Anxiety is caused by multiple health problems as well as separation from an owner. They can help identify health problems that may be the reason for anxiety.

Veterinarians are trained in behavioral solutions and can assist with training tips. Some animals will benefit from medication while they are acclimated to new behaviors and expectations. Your vet can determine if medication is appropriate.

There are veterinarians that are Board Certified by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. These vets are specially and specifically trained in treatment and behavior modification for pets. They can be hard to access due to caseload. So ask your veterinarian if there are any vets in their practice with a specific interest in behavior training. Many of those DVMs have taken extra training and courses to help your animal. They will be well versed in the latest research and training methods that can help more intractable behavior issues in pets, as well as nutritional supplements and other therapies.

At Gahanna Animal Hospital, Dr. Kristy Clay is one such veterinarian. She has a special interest in behavioral medicine and has a specific appointment protocol set aside for patients with behavioral issues. If you are interested in knowing more about Dr. Clay’s behavior appointments, a Client Care Specialist at the front desk can fill you in. Just call the hospital!

Remember to thoroughly exercise your pet before leaving! A tired pet is a calmer pet! Dr. Clay suggests a 20-25 minute walk that involves sniffing for mental enrichment. Follow the walk with alone time with a self-soothing toy, something they like to quietly engage with, lick, or chew. This practice of being happy with the owner out of sight or away from the house can get the pet used to your departure. It begins a predictable routine, which will decrease anxiety. A simple example of a mind-engaging and soothing toy is a “Kong Toy” with treats inside or peanut butter smeared around the interior. But be careful about too much peanut butter! You may create a calm but tubby pet.

Consider mind engagement or puzzle toys on the market that will give your dog or cat something to do. Cats often really enjoy toys that will move and trigger the prey drive. Dogs like to solve puzzles to win a small tidbit.

Another worthwhile consideration for your dog is one of the many daycare programs that keep your dog involved and engaged in activity during the day. Dr. Clay points out that if your dog enjoys the daycare experience the benefits of one or two days a week can extend into the days they remain home instead of at daycare, and can be another positive experience without their owner.

With separation anxiety, prevention is ideal. So, as we all get closer to the time we expect “the pilot to turn off the seatbelt sign and we are free to move about the cabin”, make a plan to help your pets adjust comfortably to their new routine.
And, enjoy those eventual hugs!

Catherine H. Drost, DVM “Dr. Cate”