This year has brought unprecedented challenges to our way of life. Stay-at-home orders, social distancing, unemployment, and business closures have left deep scars on the American psyche. And it should come as no surprise to pet parents that our furry family members are being affected as well. Our pets, who have adapted so well to having their family members around nearly 24/7, are now being faced with sudden and drastic changes as we pet parents try to resume something resembling a “normal” life again.

Many pets do not know how to cope with the sudden isolation they are facing. As kids go back to school and pet parents return to the work-force, many of the pets who enjoyed extended daily walks in the park and snuggling on the couch during Netflix binges suddenly find themselves in a quiet and empty home. Even dogs with no history of prior separation anxiety may find it challenging to cope with the perceived abandonment.

The good news is that there are things that we, as pet parents, can do to ease this transition for our pets. With sufficient time and planning, we can help prepare our pets for a stress-free day of lounging on the couch alone.

What is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a behavioral disorder described as a feeling of worry, distress, or even panic when a pet is left alone or separated from a preferred person or persons. The most common separation anxiety signs include barking, whining, drooling, destructive behavior, rearrangement of household objects, urination or defecation indoors, self-trauma from licking or chewing, decreased appetite when alone, and restlessness. 

In severe cases, dogs may even attempt to escape by chewing through a door frame, jumping out a window, or breaking through a fence. In most cases, signs of anxiety, such as pacing, panting, jumping up on the owner, or trying to escape/avoid confinement areas, begin as soon as the pet parent demonstrates signs of departure (picking up a purse or wallet, putting on shoes, or grabbing keys).

Why do pets develop Separation Anxiety?

The short answer is that we don’t know. To some degree, it may simply be a disorder of our modern lifestyle. Our household units are smaller, we work longer hours, and we don’t always have time for canine social interactions and sufficient exercise. As a result, many pet owners feel guilty about leaving their pets alone for prolonged periods and will often forego other social interactions to spend more time lavishing attention on their furry companion. In light of COVID-19, forced social isolation has left many pet parents, particularly those in single households, to turn to their pets for their sole source of companionship, thereby dramatically increasing the amount of daily attention those pets receive.

Other studies suggest the possibility that early life experiences, such as inadequate socialization, puppyhood illness, repetitive cycling through rescues or shelters, or significantly anxious or ambivalent maternal behavior on the part of the dam may contribute to the development of separation anxiety. Some experts believe that there may be a heritable component as well. Regardless, the onset of separation anxiety is thought by most to be multifactorial.

In response to the household changes brought about by COVID-19, many pets cannot cope with the sudden change of a pet parent’s absence. Older pets, in particular, often find adapting to change very difficult. Dogs with pre-existing separation anxiety, who were otherwise clinically well managed before the pandemic, may experience a significant relapse in their symptoms. Recently adopted shelter or rescue pets may also have difficulty adapting given the potential for tumultuous experiences in their past.

What Can Pet Parents Do?

Treatment for separation anxiety often requires a multimodal approach, consisting of environmental management, behavior modification techniques, and pharmacologic therapy when indicated. Milder cases often require less intervention and may benefit from environmental management and behavioral modification techniques alone. Regardless, pet parents must understand that treatment will take time, dedication, and commitment to succeed.

Environmental Management

Environmental management focuses on making the environment as calm and enjoyable as possible. Strategies include:

  • Provide pets with a safe space when left alone. For mild cases, this may be a crate or secure playpen. Severe cases or dogs prone to self-trauma while in a crate may initially require daycare or a pet sitter to prevent self-harm or significant property destruction. 
  • Make alone time more appealing by leaving your dog with a special treat or toy. Treat-filled kongs and food puzzles all work very well.
  • Play a book on tape while you’re away. Studies have also shown that many pets find the spoken word to be soothing with audiobooks, specifically, reducing anxiety most effectively in shelter pets. 
  • Create a relaxed atmosphere through calming pheromones. Electric pheromone diffusers and pheromone collars are equally effective and readily available for minimal cost. 

Behavior Modification Techniques

Behavior modification techniques work toward slowly fostering independence. At its most basic, the strategy is to reward calm and relaxed behavior and ignore anxious and clingy behavior. Behavior management can be further broken down into three stages: 

  • At home:
    • Praise calm and obedient behavior, do not punish.
    • Encourage independence by reducing physical contact at rest.
    • Practice positive exercises, such as sit-stays or down-stays, while gradually moving farther and farther away.
    • Practice departure cues (putting on shoes or coat, picking up a purse or wallet, grabbing keys, etc.) without actually leaving, all the while ignoring any anxious or excited response.
  • Before leaving:
    • Ignore your dog for 30 minutes before departing.
    • Exit calmly and quietly.
    • Leave a high-value treat in your dog’s safe space.
  • Upon arrival:
    • Do not punish your dog for any transgressions while away.
    • Ignore your dog until he or she is calm and relaxed.

In cases of severe separation anxiety, you may only be able to leave for a few minutes. With consistency and patience, however, you should be able to extend your time away while continuing to foster your dog’s growing sense of independence.

Pharmacologic Therapy

Pharmacologic therapy involves the use of over-the-counter and/or prescription medications to further reduce anxious and reactive behaviors. In general, medical management targets anxiety-inducing episodes on an as-needed basis or addresses generalized anxiety through long-term, daily medications. Your veterinarian will work closely with you to make specific recommendations based on the unique needs of your pet.

When should pet parents seek help?

If you believe your pet is suffering from separation anxiety, contact your veterinarian as soon as possible. The longer the separation anxiety is allowed to persist, the more difficult it becomes to treat. Behavioral disorders are the leading cause of pet relinquishment. Separation anxiety is both emotionally and financially challenging for pet parents, and prolonged behavioral problems can significantly damage the human-animal bond. However, with a thoughtful approach and sufficient time, pet parents can help their pets adapt to prolonged alone time at home. Slow and steady adjustments, made over about two months, will allow your pet to better acclimate to more time alone at home.