Helping Pets with Separation Anxiety - COVID-19
Whilst the last few months of lockdown have been stressful, frightening and upsetting for humans, it’s been a time of delight for our pets. Suddenly, they’re with their humans 24 hours a day and going on more exciting, long walks. Unfortunately, as the nation prepares to return to work, that's all about to change.
For many, this will have been the first time you’ve been able to spend all day, every day with your pet. Sadly, now they're used to you being home, they may well develop separation anxiety, even if it's not something they've had problems with before.
Separation anxiety, or separation related behaviour (SRB), doesn’t sound too bad, but it’s horrible for our pets and it can unfortunately lead to some very destructive behaviour both for them and your home, so it’s important that we do our best to avoid/reduce it.
If you’re a cat owner, you may not need to worry too much about your feline suffering from separation anxiety. Most cats are more than happy to be left to their own devices through the day, especially is they're allowed outside. With that said, there are some cats that are less independent than others and may suffer the same as dogs, so it will be useful to be able to spot the symptoms and know how to help them.
Reading through this blog should help you understand the behaviours linked to separation anxiety, how you can help your pet, and what you should never do.
Following these tips will be beneficial for both of you. It will make leaving them easier if you know they’re happy, but most importantly it will reduce the risk of them hurting themselves in your absence and requiring an expensive trip to the vet.
Common symptoms of separation anxiety
Many of the symptoms linked to separation anxiety can also have many other causes such as lack of training, disobedience or a medical condition. If it’s only when they’re left alone that they exhibit the behaviours listed below then you can be more confident that they’re caused by separation anxiety.
Urinating and defecating
One of the most obvious signs of separation anxiety is returning home to find your pet has urinated or defecated in your house. You can help with this by providing a designated area for them to do their business in. Whilst you don’t want to encourage the behaviour as such, sometimes they’ve just got to go and, when they do, it’s better that it’s somewhere you can easily clear up.
Barking and howling
A clear sign of distress in any pet is vocalization. Many dogs will begin barking, howling and whining as soon as they notice any sign that indicates you’re about to leave the house. This behaviour can continue the whole time you’re out which is both very distressing for your pet and unpleasant for your neighbours.
Chewing, digging and destruction
If you think your pet suffers from separation anxiety, or they just get bored easily, we advise you don’t keep them in a room with anything valuable or sentimental. It’s not uncommon for a pet to show their frustration or boredom, or even just release pent up energy, by chewing, scratching or digging anything within reach.
Not only can this get expensive for you, but it can also cause injury to themselves by damaging their teeth, cutting their gums or injuring their paws/nails.
You can avoid a trip to the vet and an insurance claim by reducing their anxiety, removing anything they can attack, or providing something for them to chew/scratch.
In their frustration and fear, it’s not uncommon for pets to try to escape. In a frenzy, they will try almost anything to succeed in their Houdini attempt. This may include scratching at doors, jumping at windows and climbing onto chairs/tables all of which could lead to injury.
You must do what you can to ensure the area you keep them in is escape proof whilst reducing the risk of harm to them if they attempt anything.
A pet suffering from separation anxiety will find it very difficult to relax and will likely pace constantly in circles or back and forth in a line.
Coprophagia is the word used for when a pet consumes their own or another animal’s faeces. Whilst it is generally harmless, it is a disgusting habit and can cause gastroenteritis, resulting in vomiting and diarrhoea.
Why do pets suffer from separation anxiety?
Thousands of years of breeding pets to live alongside humans in our homes has led to a dependency upon us and, when we’re not around, our pets really don’t know what to do with themselves.
It’s believed that pets who’ve been adopted suffer more than those who’ve lived with the same family since they were a puppy. Sadly, the loss they experienced when they were permanently separated from their previous owner sparks their anxiety every time you leave them alone.
The sad truth is, every time we leave the house, our pets have no idea of how long we will be gone for or even if we will return. That not knowing will cause anxiety for anyone.
What can trigger separation anxiety?
Change of guardian or family
Being abandoned either purposefully or by no fault of their previous owner is a major contributor to a pet's separation anxiety. They’ve already lost one owner and now, when you leave the house, they fear it's happening again.
Change in schedule
This is the trigger that many pets across the UK will experience over the next few weeks and months as the lockdown is lifted. A change in schedule which suddenly takes a human away from the pet will be very confusing and potentially scary for them.
The UK is starting to return to work after 3 months at home, so owners must take every precaution they can to reduce their pets anxiety.
Change in members of the household
During the lockdown, many of us have had members of our families living with us for one reason or another. Separation anxiety isn’t only about being left alone, it’s about being separated from those who your pet loves. Your pet has likely formed a bond with your extra human over the last few months and it will be very distressing for them if they’re suddenly no longer around.
Do some breeds suffer more than others?
Any pet can suffer from separation anxiety, but there are certain breeds of dogs who are more susceptible, mostly those who have been bred to form strong bonds with their owners.
Some of the breeds that are worst hit by separation anxiety are:
- Toy Poodles
- German Shepherds
- Labrador Retrievers
- Cocker Spaniels
- Border Collies
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
- Italian Greyhounds
How can you help?
Stagger the separation
If you’re able to, don’t jump straight from being at home 24/7 to suddenly working 40 hours a week away from home. Unfortunately, not all pet owners will have the luxury of choice when it comes to returning to work but it’s worth discussing your options with your manager. If they can just allow you to work from home some of the time, or return at reduced hours, that could really help your pet.
Return home when you can
If you’re lucky enough to work close to home, try to visit your pet as often as you can. If you can split up those 8 hours into 3 or 4 shorter chunks, this should reduce the risk of your pet suffering from separation anxiety.
If it doesn’t reduce the separation anxiety, it does at least mean you can help with the effects more often and reduce the risk to your pet.
Set up a dog cam
Most of us have no idea what our pets get up to when we’re at home. Just because you return to a clean, damage free house doesn’t mean your pet has been totally fine for the 8 hours you’ve been out of the house.
Setting up a dog cam in your house is the best way for you to really understand how they’re coping. Regularly check in on them and, if you notice any of the signs earlier in this blog, you may need to consider a quick trip home. You can also keep an eye on them in case they injure themselves and you need to take them to the vet ASAP.
Some of the more advanced dog cameras on the market even allow you to talk to your pet through them or drop treats.
Before you go checking the cam every 10 minutes, speak to your manager. Explain the situation and get their approval, not only to check the cam but to leave the office suddenly if your pet needs you. Discussing this beforehand will be much easier than having to explain yourself If you’re having to rush to their aid.
Get them used to separation
The best thing about this time for our pets is also the worst thing – they have gotten used to us being around all day, every day. This is what will making the separation so much harder for them.
If you haven’t returned to work yet, you can take steps now to get them prepared for when you do. One thing you can do is regularly put them in another room just for 10 minutes or so at first and then gradually increase the time when they are more comfortable. These short breaks away from you will get them used to you not being around.
If you can, put them in a room where they can’t hear you but you are able to come to their aid if needed.
Make it a positive experience
One of the best things you can do to prevent separation anxiety is to replace their fear with positivity; do whatever you can to reduce their feeling that you walking out the door is a bad thing.
How can you do this? Pets love food and mental stimulation!
Before you return to work, stock up on your pet’s favourite snack and some new toys, especially puzzle toys. Now you have these, you can stuff those treats in a puzzle toy for them every time you leave the house. Not only is this a distraction, but it develops an association between you leaving the house and them having a delicious treat.
Be sure to keep these treats only for when you’re leaving the house, so keep them out of sight when you return home.
Disassociate ‘leaving cues’ with leaving the house
Pets are smarter than we sometimes give them credit for. It doesn’t take long for them to associate certain behaviours or activities with something like you leaving the house.
For example, they will quickly become aware that you grabbing your keys and putting on a coat and shoes means they will soon be left alone. Once they have this association, they will experience anxiety every time they notice these cues, so it’s important to try to avoid that trigger.
How can you do this? Think about what you always do before leaving the house and then every now and again, do these exact things but don’t leave the house. It may mean sitting on your sofa watching tv in your coat and boots, but it will be worth it to reduce their anxiety when you actually do leave the house.
The frequency of which you need to do this will depend on how long you’ve had your pet. If they’ve been with your family for 10 years then they’ve learned 10 years of cues you’re trying to disassociate, meaning it will take much longer than if you have a 12 week old puppy.
Crates can be hit and miss and for some it can actually increase their anxiety, but it can be a very useful tool for dealing with separation anxiety. It will be difficult for you to know how your dog will react without attempting crate training.
Early morning walks
If you have the time, try taking them on a long walk in the morning before you leave for work. Your aim here is to reduce their energy levels so they sleep through most of the day or at least don’t have an abundance of energy to cause damage to your house or themselves.
The other added benefit of a morning walk is it gives them a good chance to relieve themselves, reducing the risk of them doing so inside your house whilst you’re out.
Bring your dog to work
A small percentage of owners may have the luxury of taking their pooch to work with them. You may not think this is an option, but there’s no harm in asking your manager. The worst case scenario is they say no, and the best case is you have your furry friend by your side all day.
Just because there’s never been an office dog before, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not allowed, just maybe no one has asked.
Ensure their collar and microchip are up to date
As separation anxiety can cause some pets to try to escape, it’s important to ensure their collar and chip are up to date in case they succeed. Updating both will reduce the risk to your pet and make it much easier for you to be reunited.
Our pet’s hearing is much sharper than ours, so they can likely hear much of what is happening outside of your house. If possible, it’s best to keep your pet in a room furthest from the front of the house so they’re not disturbed by every passing car or person.
Unfortunately, these distractions only make it harder for your pet to relax, heightening their anxiety.
If you must have them in the front room, you should do what you can so they can’t see out of the window.
Leaving a radio or the TV on will help mask any noises from outside.
Get a dog sitter
What your pet really wants is to be around you, but another human will help to distract them, reduce their loneliness, and ensure they’re fed and have regular toilet breaks.
This isn’t an option right now due to the restrictions on who can be within your household, but perhaps you could leave them with a family member in your 'bubble' who isn’t working or is doing so from home? If they can’t commit to having them all day, they may be able to pop in regularly to check on them which is better than them being left alone for 8 or 9 hours.
Consider a calming agent
If the above doesn’t work and their anxiety remains high, you can consider a calming agent, much like owners use to help pets relax during fireworks.
Before you buy anything, you must speak to your vet to get their advice on what you can safely give your pet. Always make sure you follow the manufacturers advice.
What shouldn't you do?
Do not punish your pet
On no condition should you punish them for any behaviours linked to their anxiety as this will only exacerbate their fear, leading to continued negative behaviour.
Whatever they’ve done in your absence, whether it’s damaging a sofa or peeing on a rug, is not a result of disobedience or lack of training, it is purely triggered by their anxiety which they cannot control.
Instead of punishing them for the bad, make sure you reward them for the good because positive reinforcement is much more effective 100% of the time.
Do not leave them for longer than you need to
If you have an opportunity to go home, do so, and never leave them alone overnight. Not only do they require food and water, but the longer you leave them for, the more anxious they will get.
If you don’t have a choice but to leave them one day for longer than usual, you must arrange for someone to check in on them. They can feed them, check their water, ensure your pet is healthy and unharmed, and just give them some attention for 10 minutes or so. Where possible, choose someone your pet is very familiar with and try to avoid strangers who your pet may see as an intruder.