Managing Separation Anxiety
Our pets are our constant companions. They love us unconditionally, just as we love them. But what happens when that loves becomes codependence? Is it possible for our pets to love us too much? Maybe not, but it is possible that your pet never truly learned how to cope without you.
Separation anxiety is not uncommon, and pet owners are likely to see signs of separation anxiety popping up as they return to in-office work after years of a remote existence. Although separation anxiety is best mitigated through socialization training and alone time when an animal is younger, older animals are not a lost cause.
What is separation anxiety?
Typically, separation anxiety is characterized by anxious or destructive behavior when an animal is left alone. It is challenging to definitively define the cause of separation anxiety. Past traumas such as abandonment could potentially trigger anxiety, as can a change in residence or schedule. The condition is typically noted in dogs rather than cats. The signs can vary in nature, from something as subtle as following an owner from room to room to something as extreme as destroying a couch when left alone. Dogs with separation anxiety may vocalize, urinate, defecate, shake, or even try to escape when left unattended.
How is separation anxiety addressed?
If other medical conditions have been ruled out, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) recommends the following steps for addressing separation anxiety:
For mild cases, counterconditioning should be utilized to mitigate or solve anxiety. Counterconditioning “is a treatment process that changes an animal’s fearful, anxious or aggressive reaction to a pleasant, relaxed one instead” through the utilization of a positive stimulus such as a puzzle toy, treats, or a stuffed Kong. These special toys should be provided to the dog only when left alone so that it begins to associate alone time with a high-value reward.
For moderate to severe cases, counterconditioning alone is unlikely to be effective. Instead, consider counterconditioning in conjunction with desensitization. In these cases, the process will need to be taken stepwise. The first step in most cases will be to work on mitigating a dog’s stress response to predeparture triggers such as picking up keys or putting on shoes. The next step will be to move into short, graduated absences. Essentially, the goal is to allow the dog to have positive experiences alone; this means that these absences are controlled and short enough that the dog’s anxiety isn’t triggered. Depending on the severity of the case, this can take multiple weeks or even months.
It’s recommended that those with animals who have moderate to severe cases of separation anxiety consult with a certified professional dog trainer or certified animal behaviorist rather than develop their own counterconditioning/desensitization plan. A poorly executed plan can lead to a more anxious dog and strain an owner’s relationship with their pet. A behavioral professional will be better equipped to modify the plan as needed to work with the dog’s specific needs.
These plans will be most successful if the dog is also receiving adequate mental and physical stimulation.
Are there other options?
Crate training is an option that can be explored but may not be optimal for all dogs. Although some dogs will see the crate as a den, others will become even more anxious. An owner considering crate training for their dog should watch for signs of distress (per the ASPCA: heavy panting, excessive salivation, frantic escape attempts, persistent howling or barking) and opt for another method to avoid amplifying the problem. Some alternatives include confining the dog to an individual room or within a baby gate.
If behavioral modifications alone fail, it is worth a consultation with a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist to discuss medication. Some commonly prescribed anti-anxiety medications include fluoxetine or clomipramine. In conjunction with a behavioral modification plan, most dogs will see significant improvement in anxiety.
Any other tips?
- Keep goodbyes and greetings calm
- Reward calm behaviors
- Do not punish or scold anxious behaviors
- If all else fails, find some workarounds
- Take your dog out with you
- Hire a pet sitter
- Set your dog up with a doggy daycare
At the end of the day, separation anxiety is stressful to both owner and pet. Equipped with the knowledge of how to begin tackling these issues, owners can work in conjunction with veterinary professionals to provide their pets with the support they need to thrive.
Separation anxiety. ASPCA. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2022, from https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/dog-care/common-dog-behavior-issues/separation-anxiety