Soothing Separation Anxiety

The shelter-in-place order has given many of us extended time with our pets. As we pour a cup of coffee in the morning, attend a virtual meeting mid-afternoon, or sign off for the night, our trusted companions are beside us, snoring, purring, or yapping as they will. Because of this, a lot of pet guardians are wondering how our dogs and cats will react when we are away from home, whether to rejoin onsite employment or to attend to other outside activities.

Both cats and dogs can exhibit separation distress, though there are far fewer studies on separation anxiety in cats. We do know that 13-17% of owned dogs experience separation anxiety, which equates to millions worldwide.

Here are tips on how to identify whether your dog or cat is suffering from separation anxiety and what you can do to alleviate it.

Signs of Anxiety
Look for these signs when you are not present and note if your pet doesn’t seem to be their usual self.

  • In dogs, excessive barking, whining, or howling; in cats, you may notice excessive                         vocalizations
  • Destroying objects in the home (both dogs and cats; cats may also demonstrate attention-         seeking behaviors)
  • Inappropriate elimination (for dogs, accidents in the house; in cats, this is frequently                   seen as urination outside the litter box)
  • Complaints from neighbors of excessive barking when you are out
  • Lethargy/depressive behavior (cats may exhibit a decrease in appetite)
  • Hyper-attachment behavior (displayed by dogs who are so attached to their guardian they         struggle to cope when separated)

Keep arrivals and departures low key.
 Make your entrances and exits calm so that the experience of you coming and going is not a notable event. One way of reducing the anxiety around your departure is to be aware of any triggers your pet may have that signal you’re on your way out. For instance, if you typically put your bag by the front door just before leaving, try putting it there on a day you’re staying home. Your pet will see that your bag is not always an indicator that “alone time” is about to begin.

Teach your dog simple cues like “stay” and “on your mat” to begin the process of training for short separations. Once your dog understands these cues, practice doing short separations of five to ten minutes, beginning with you in a separate room. Short separations will help your dog learn that being apart doesn’t mean long spans of time alone. You may want to start with even less than five minutes and pay attention to any signs of stress your dog is exhibiting. As soon as these signs are apparent, return to the room. Gradually you’ll be able to increase the length of time you’re out of the room before the signs of stress arise. To learn more, watch SF SPCA Shelter Behavior Manager Aaron Teixeira’s video on preventing separation anxiety.

Provide playtime prior to leaving. Initiating playtime with a noodle toy or other engaging item will help to expend your cat’s energy prior to your departure. Likewise, if time allows, get your dog outside for a little exercise before leaving them on their own. You can also break up their day by having a dog walker or neighbor stop by to walk them for 20 to 30 minutes.

Leave out or hide treat-dispensing puzzles. Brain games are an excellent way to keep your pet entertained when you’re out of the house. If you have someone coming to walk your dog or check on your cat throughout the day, this person can refill the puzzle during their visit. Snuffle mats are an excellent option and they are something you can make at home for either dogs or cats.

Turn on soft music or television. Comforting voices or quiet music can soothe animals who are home alone and can help mask the distracting noises from outside. Consider leaving the TV on or playing a calm playlist to ease their stress.

Talk to your vet about a stress-reducing pheromone. By mimicking the scent given off by female dogs to soothe their nursing puppies, Adaptil helps to calm anxiety and can be a useful aid to dogs of all ages. Cats are naturally sensory creatures, so providing pheromone-producing fragrances will contribute to easing stress.

For dogs, separation anxiety feels like the equivalent of a panic attack, so the behaviors they exhibit can range from mild to severe. Cat behaviors can also vary depending on the animal’s response to stress. There are many steps you can try on your own, and for most people and pets these processes are successful. In the event that your issues seem insurmountable, call the SF SPCA’s behavior clinic for advice and possibly an appointment at 415-554-3074.   

Call us if:

  • Your pet is injuring himself
  • The quality of your pet’s life is at risk
  • You are overwhelmed by your pet’s behavior
  • Outside complaints (typically from excessive barking) are escalating

Our experts have produced a few articles for our blog. You can find them here: Preparing Pets for the End of Sheltering in Place Separation-Related Problems

The San Francisco SPCA is a nonprofit organization that relies on the generous donations of our community. Please consider making a monthly contribution to help us continue to save sick and homeless animals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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