Those same big round eyes that made you melt and welcome them into your family can easily turn into panic when left alone, which could be separation anxiety in your dog or cat. The Humanitarian Heritage Society shares the signs and symptoms of separation and her best practices to help keep your best friend calm that when left alone (read: no more ripped pillows or marks), all is well and you will come back.
What is separation anxiety in pets?
Just as some human babies and toddlers suffer from anxiety that results in crying, restlessness, and even an inability to let go when their parents go to work, run errands, or play, some dogs and cats experience the same feelings. This is called separation anxiety. Your pet doesn’t understand where you went or why you left it and panic sets in.
“In owners and pets, separation anxiety is often brought on by fear of the unknown or uncertainty about the future,” shares Andrew D. MacDougall, DVM, Riverbound Veterinary Clinic and member of the board of directors of the Heritage Humane Society.
Separation Anxiety Symptoms
Pets may exhibit one or more of the following symptoms of separation anxiety.
Urinate and defecate. Some animals urinate or defecate in inappropriate places when separated from their human companions. Cats can get out of the litter box and dogs can relieve themselves in the house. If, however, cats or dogs have the same problems when their human companions are at home, separation anxiety is probably not the cause.
Barking and howling. Some dogs and cats express separation anxiety by being very verbal when their human companion is not around. This adds to their distress and can cause frustration with neighbors and anyone else within hearing distance.
Chew, dig, destroy. It’s never fun to come home to torn grass in the yard, throw pillows strewn across the living room, or chewed up furniture.
Escape. Separation anxiety can be the cause if your favorite feline or dog runs away when you’re not around. The dog rushing out the dog door, jumping the fence and running down the street following your car can be as frustrating to you as his fear of you leaving him.
Rhythm. If you notice a well-worn pattern on the floor or floor, it’s a sign that your dog is spending time away from you fixating on being apart and trying to cope with the nervousness.
Why does this happen?
You love your pet very much, you have provided him with a safe and happy home, then you may be wondering why your pet is creating messes or tight wounds. Separation anxiety is easy to diagnose. The hardest part can be finding the root cause.
Fear of losing you. Dogs and cats rarely spend their entire lives with the same humans they were born around. Most pets are adopted, and if it’s not a young puppy or kitten, feelings of losing a trusted guardian can be seared into their memory.
Schedule change. Dogs and cats are classic examples of creatures of habit. They like the reliability (read: no surprises) of the routine. If a work schedule changes or if a human companion goes on a trip, it can increase the animal’s anxiety.
Moving. A new home means a new environment and being unfamiliar can be very unnerving.
New family member. A new baby, roommate, or welcoming other family members can be overwhelming for pets as they try to adjust to new people who need you and new routines.
Treatment: calm the nerves
Separation anxiety definitely leaves pets feeling vulnerable. There are a variety of treatments ranging from establishing routines to specialists to medications.
First, eliminate the underlying issues. Medical problems can be incontinence caused by medical problems or medications which can have the side effect of more frequent urination. Behavioral issues may include submissive or excited urination, incomplete house training, urine marking, juvenile destruction, boredom, barking or howling triggered by environmental triggers such as unfamiliar sights and sounds.
“Establishing a daily routine and incorporating socialization will often eliminate uncertainty. When schedules are set, the mind stops overworking itself and trying to cope with uncertainty. You will then have a calmer, more confident dog,” says MacDougall.
Before leaving, make sure the dog or cat has had plenty of exercise and playtime. This lowers the energy they will have when it’s time for you to leave.
Treatment of mild anxiety. Counter-conditioning works well with mildly anxious pets by taking stressful situations such as your leaving home and making it a welcome positive experience for them. This can be done by offering high value treats only when you leave. For example, a Kong stuffed with peanut butter.
Treatment of moderate to high anxiety. If an animal’s anxiety is so high, it probably won’t have an appetite, so a plush Kong or a challenge toy filled with cat treats won’t be appealing or soothing. For these anxious animals, a desensitization and counter-conditioning program is essential. Since it is important that pets do not experience fear in the program as this can cause a huge setback, enlisting the expertise of a Certified Animal Behaviorist (CAAB/ACAAB), a Certified Veterinary Behaviorist (Dip-ACVB), or Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) qualified to help with separation anxiety is paramount.
Step 1. Hints before departure. Putting on shoes and picking up keys can signal to a pet that you’re about to leave, which in their minds means “you’re leaving me.” Practice putting on shoes and hanging around the house, picking up your keys and putting them in your pocket or moving them around the house so the pet hears the noise, but begins to realize it doesn’t mean that you leave it. It may take a few weeks. Once you see that your pet is no longer anxious, you can move on to the next step.
Step 2. Graduated departures and absences. Start by getting your dog to spend time in another room of the house without asking you to “stay”. This out-of-sight exercise starts with a few seconds and lasts up to 40 minutes, the threshold at which pets go from being most panicked until they begin to calm down. With daily practice, this can be accomplished in a matter of weeks.
Also go back to counter-conditioning and incorporate a “safe toy” such as a peanut butter stuffed KONG or a cat toy that requires the cat to interact with it to be rewarded with a treat from the toy so that it associates a enriching and relaxing activity. with your absence. When it’s time to leave, practice a calm and quiet departure rather than being busy talking on the phone or with others as you leave your home.
“Separation anxiety is a vexing behavior problem. The protocol for treating separation anxiety is methodical and meticulous. It takes a committed owner,” says Adam Claar, dog training specialist at the Heritage Humane Society. “Support from a separation anxiety specialist can be costly, but invaluable. Owners can use medication to facilitate behavior modification.
Reprimanding or punishing a pet is not only inappropriate, it can exacerbate their anxiety and distress. The animal is not trying to disobey, but rather to make you understand that it needs help. Consult your veterinarian if you need help.
“Every case is unique, and phobias are hard to overcome,” Claar shares. “Time is a necessary ingredient in the recipe. Treatment may go slowly, but separation anxiety is treatable.
Good dog training helps pave the way for overcoming separation anxiety. Adam Claar provides the dog training course and free workshops at the Heritage Humane Society. Those who adopt puppies or dogs from the Heritage Humane Society receive a special $40 voucher for dog training classes.
For more information and to register your dog for training, visit HeritageHumane.org or call 757-221-0150. Heritage Humane Society is located at 430 Waller Mill Road, Williamsburg, VA 23185.
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