Marketing manager Paula, who became a fur parent during the pandemic, gets worried when her two-year-old dog Loafy cries everytime she steps out for groceries, in a preview of longer and more frequent separations to come as she returns to office.
Animals too suffer from separation anxiety when they are left alone for long periods of time and it manifests in many ways, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
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For those who got a dog or a cat during the long lockdowns, it's best to watch out for possible pet bahavior when they are left alone in the house or condo.
Pets may pee or poop out of stress. If your pets relieves themself in your presence, it could have more to do with improper training than anxiety. Some dogs may go as far as consume their own waste if separation anxiety hits.
Persistent barking or meowing when left alone at home could also indicate anxiety.
Separation anxiety can also manifest in the destruction of household objects such as doors, floors, carpets, or pillows. While a hassle to clean up, it can also mean serious self-injury for the pet in the form of broken teeth and wounded paws.
Escape attempts are also common, even if the area is familiar or safe. This shows up as clawing at doors, digging for exits, and biting knobs or locks. Some pets will also resort to pacing.
Why is my fur child so anxious?
There’s no one piece of evidence that points to why exactly pets get separation anxiety, though it has long been linked to loss or a drastic change in environment. According to the ASPCA, being abandoned, surrendered, or given to a new guardian can lead to separation anxiety.
Your return to office setup can also trigger your pet’s anxiety: “If a dog’s guardian works from home and spends all day with his dog but then gets a new job that requires him to leave his dog alone for six or more hours at a time, the dog might develop separation anxiety because of that change.”
How to minimize separation anxiety
Each animal is different so there’s no guarantee all pets will develop it, nor will they completely get over it with time. Still, there are some steps pet guardians can take to ease their cat, dog, or other furry friends into a new schedule.
Time is your best friend, as having more of it can help your pet adapt to the new routine. As early as now, do your best to prepare them.
Every time you leave the house, leave your pet with treats or toys they like, or activities they consider fun. Keep in mind that this may work only on pets with mild separation anxiety, as some animals with severe cases may even refuse to eat without a guardian around.
“Counterconditioning is a treatment process that changes an animal’s fearful, anxious or aggressive reaction to a pleasant, relaxed one instead. For dogs with separation anxiety, counterconditioning focuses on developing an association between being alone and good things, like delicious food,” the ASPCA said.
Cues or signals can also get your pet anxious and prevent you from leaving home. Things like putting on shoes, the jangle of your keys, and even strapping on a face mask can be associated with your departure and set them off on destructive behavior.
It’s important to show your pet that doing those things doesn't always mean you’re leaving them for good.
To get your pet used to them, you can expose “your dog to these cues in various orders several times a day—without leaving.”
“Your dog has many years of learning the significance of your departure cues, so in order to learn that the cues no longer predict your long absences, your dog must experience the fake cues many, many times a day for many weeks,” it added.
“The main rule is to plan your absences to be shorter than the time it takes for your dog to become upset,” the ASPCA said.
Practice the ‘stay’ trick with your dog. If you live in a bigger space, teach your dog to stay in one end of the house as you go to the other. Live in a condo? Train your dog to stay while you go to the bathroom for a few seconds, then come back.
This can start from two to three second leaves, then gradually up to five to 10 seconds. Reward them for staying, and to challenge them, you can mix in a pre-departure cue when you go to the bathroom and come back.
“During your sessions, be sure to wait a few minutes between absences. After each short separation, it’s important to make sure that your dog is completely relaxed before you leave again.”
Soothing your cats
Cats may look more independent than dogs, but they’re still susceptible to separation anxiety. “They tend to manifest symptoms in ways that dogs don’t,” cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy said.
“Don’t say anything, don’t make a big deal out of it,” Galaxy said. It sounds cruel but it can prevent your cat from making your trip out the door to be such a huge thing.
Give your cat “Cat TV” or things to watch. If you’ve got a window, cats will enjoy following birds or seeing nature. The goal is to keep them engaged while you’re gone.
If all else fails, get help
There’s no one way to rid your pet of separation anxiety. Perhaps they really crave human attention so it might be best to leave them with a family or friend while you’re at work.
If the situation gets severe, contact your veterinarian for assistance.