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Health & Wellness

Separation anxiety in pets

A heartbreaking and sometimes dangerous behavior

Let’s face it, we all get a little needy sometimes. But this behavior can be problematic and even dangerous for our pets. You spent months at home with your pets during the pandemic, so it may be hard for them to adjust when you return to work — especially if they came into your life during quarantine. 

Separation anxiety is really common in pets and may not have started just with COVID-19. Pets often get anxious when children return back to school after summer vacation. Dr. Aliya McCullough, pet health advocate and veterinarian, explains exactly what separation anxiety looks like and how to help your best friend feel more confident on their own. 

What does separation anxiety look like? 

Separation anxiety is not only heartbreaking, but it can sometimes result in injuries to your pet as well as damage to your home. To best protect your pet, it’s good to know what key signs to look out for: 

  • Howling, barking or crying while you’re away
  • Signs of nervousness while you’re preparing to leave 
  • Going to the bathroom in the house
  • Destructive behavior when left alone, like tearing up pillows or toys

Cats don’t express separation anxiety like dogs, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel it. Oftentimes, they’ll get increasingly vocal, wander from room to room, get angry or go to the bathroom somewhere other than their litter box. 


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How to help your pets

Separation anxiety can definitely be managed, but it takes time and getting them used to you being gone for short periods at first. Our pets need time to understand that the disappearance of their pet parent is only temporary. However, there are some simple ways to help ease your pet’s worry: 

  • Get puzzles or toys that dispense treats to keep them occupied. If you don’t want to buy anything new, you could hide food-stuffed toys around the house. Talk to your vet about what’s safe to leave them with when unattended.
  • Create a relaxing environment. Leave an audio book or music on so that the house isn’t completely quiet while you’re away. Don’t leave the television on, as it could be overstimulating.
  • Use pet sitting or dog-walking services to get them out of the house (but make sure they’re comfortable with the walker).
  • If it fits in your budget, consider day care for your pets (socializing may have a positive effect).
  • Practice leaving. Prepare to leave, say goodbye to your pet and stand outside. Keep doing this until your pet gets more comfortable, and try to extend the amount of time you leave each time. 
  • Remain calm during your hellos and goodbyes. Ignoring your dog for 15 to 30 minutes prior to leaving or after arriving home can help keep them calm.  
  • For shorter amounts of time, it may be beneficial to put your pet in their crate (if they’re already comfortable in their crate). As natural den animals, dogs may feel safer in their own space.
  • Avoid leaving them in areas with lots of windows or doors, as this stimulation could make them more anxious. 
  • Meet your pet’s basic needs. Make sure they have exercise, attention and mental stimulation (sniff walks where you take them to a new area) before you leave. 

However, there are also things that you should definitely not do:

  • Never punish your pet. Yelling, spraying water and shock collars make anxiety worse. It’s important to remember they’re not being spiteful. They’re just trying to find any way to get back to you. 
  • Medication alone often does not work. You can also ask your vet about a consultation with a veterinary behaviorist to help treat this condition. 

The best place to start is to reach out to your vet. Get their point of view and recommendations about any veterinary behaviorists. With a little patience, practice and advice from your vet, your pet will become more and more confident when it comes to solo time.

Photo by Ralph (Ravi) Kayden on Unsplash

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