Separation anxiety is a condition most commonly associated with dogs, but it affects a significant number of cats as well. It is an emotional condition that presents itself with a range of behavioral issues caused by severe distress at being left alone, such as urinating or defecating in inappropriate places, pacing and patrolling about the house, destructive chewing or scratching of furniture and household items, and vocalization such as barking, meowing or howling. It can also cause the pet in question to act self-destructively as well, such as by biting or chewing at their own coats or pulling out their fur.
The severity of separation anxiety will vary from case to case, with some animals being happy to be left alone for short periods of time or as long as they know that someone is in the house, albeit in a different room. Some other pets cannot stand being left alone even for a moment, and will begin to act up as soon as you try to leave the room and prevent them from following.
Understandably, separation anxiety can have a crippling effect on both the pet in question, and the person who cares for them. As well as the obvious and tangible issues that can arise from your pet ruining your property, making a lot of noise and disturbing your neighbors, or hurting themselves, the negative impact of the stress and concern that separation anxiety can bring about in both pet and person would be hard to overstate. Fortunately, help is at hand! While there is by no means any quick or easy fix for separation anxiety in pets, given time and effort, it is entirely possible to work with your pet to reduce their stress levels upon being left alone, and make life easier for both of you.
Working out the root cause of your pet’s separation anxiety can be helpful in establishing how best to tackle it, but this is not always as easy as it sounds! You may, for instance, have bought or adopted an adult pet with an unknown history and a pre-learned disposition to separation anxiety. Alternatively, the problem might originate from the way that you interact with your pet on a day-to-day basis, inadvertently leaving them poorly prepared for spending time alone and not knowing how to entertain and comfort themselves when you are absent. Finally, some pets are simply more sensitive to stress and in need of more reassurance than others; every cat or dog is, after all, different.
A ten-stage plan to tackling separation anxiety in cats and dogs
Tackling separation anxiety in cats and dogs takes time, patience, and often, a lot of effort. There is no simple quick fix, and it may take several weeks or even months and a lot of hard work before your pet’s behavior upon being left alone becomes manageable. If you are running out of ideas as to how to make life easier for both you and your pet when they are left alone, check out this ten-stage plan for reducing and in time, hopefully eliminating serious separation anxiety in cats and dogs.
1. Make sure your pet has enough entertainment and stimulation
Before you can work to tackle any problem that presents itself in your pet, you should make sure that all of their constants and necessities are being adequately provided for. This includes ensuring that your pet gets enough exercise and is played with enough, and that they get to spend enough quality time with you. Doing everything that you can to make sure your pet’s emotional and physical needs are well served will not, on its own, usually be sufficient to correct an existing case of separation anxiety, but if these needs are not being provided for, then it can definitely make the situation worse or make it harder to address the problem.
Ensure that your pet has a regular daily routine and stability in what they can expect from their life with you, and that they have plenty of opportunity for play, exercise and entertainment.
2. Work on your training skills
Resolving separation anxiety means working closely with your pet and interacting with them as the mother figure or leader of your two-part team. If a dog is poorly trained or has gotten lax in their understanding or obedience of their training commands, separation anxiety can become almost impossible to resolve. If you cannot command your dog to sit and stay, or to come when you call them, you are unlikely to be able to tackle any more complex problems. Work on or brush up your dog’s basic training skills, and make sure that your dog is keen to work with you and obey your commands.
Ensure that your cat understands what they are and are not allowed to do and play with, such as what furniture is out of bounds or which rooms they are not allowed into. This is a necessary step towards being able to deal with your pet’s separation anxiety.
3. Baby steps and baby barriers!
Forcing or rushing the process of separating yourself from your pet will prove counterproductive, so before you can happily close the front door behind you leaving your cat or dog on the other side, you must get your pet used to progressively further and longer absences and coping without being glued to your side at all times. Approach this in stages, with your first major goal to aim for being to leave your pet in one room of the house while you are in another.
The first step towards doing this is by working out a barrier system such as a baby gate or mesh screen that you can use to secure your pet in one room while you are in another, while still allowing your pet to be able to see and hear you, and so, keep their cool. Initially, this will possibly confuse and frustrate your pet, but this step is important in order to get them used to having some physical space between you. When you reach the point where your pet will happily settle down behind their barrier or partition, you will be able to progress to being able to leave their sight for a couple of minutes at a time, and build upwards from there.
4. Distraction is key
A bored pet that has no way of entertaining themselves appropriately in your absence will soon make their own fun by acting destructively within the home, and is likely to get much more anxious upon being left. Ensure that your pet has enough toys and activities to keep them occupied at any time when you will be away, in order to give them an outlet to channel their energies into rather than simply monitoring their internal clock and pining awaiting your return. Interactive or puzzle and reward toys are ideal to use here, such as a Kong filled with a tasty paste that your dog must work to earn, or a rolling ball filled with treats that can be earned for a cat.
5. Don’t turn leaving and returning into dramatic events
When you leave your pet and when you return home to them, don’t allow parting and greeting to become dramatic, excitable events with prolonged goodbyes or over-effusive welcomes. Understandably, you will be pleased to see your cat or dog when you get home and will want to make a fuss over them, and of course letting your pet know that you are going out is fine, but ensure that you greet and part calmly and without causing your pet to become hyperactive or overexcited. Make sure that leaving and returning are regarded as normal, everyday events in the household, and are not blown up into over-the-top dramas that can lead your pet to think that something unusual is occurring.
6. Don’t punish your pet’s distress
Managing separation anxiety takes time, and will not necessarily follow a linear path. You may have setbacks along the way, or have to re-trace your steps and go back to basics if it transpires that you are moving things along too quickly for your pet to cope with. It is incredibly easy to become irritated or frustrated if your pet doesn’t reach the stage of being able to be left alone as quickly as you would like, and having to deal with your pet making a big fuss when you are trying to go out can undoubtedly be stressful and cause problems for you in general. However, showing any kind of reaction to inappropriate behavior when leaving can act as a reward to your pet, even if that reaction is negative. Keep things calm and constant, and don’t get angry or annoyed with your pet or do anything else to build up new negative associations in your pet’s mind with being left alone.
7. Tackle separation anxiety before attempting crate training or restriction
Crate training for dogs or getting your cat used to being restricted to one area of the home can be valuable tools to avoid separation anxiety from manifesting itself in the first place, but if your pet is already showing signs of separation anxiety, you should not attempt to incorporate these tools into the routine at this time.
Doing so is counter-productive, and will lead to your cat or dog’s crate time or restriction to certain areas of the home being associated in their minds with being left or being punished, ensuring that crate training or getting a cat used to having the home sectioned off later on will be exponentially harder to achieve.
8. Desensitizing your pet to your absence
Desensitization therapy is a commonly used tool for people, and it can prove just as effective for cats and dogs! Desensitization therapy is the process of repeatedly exposing your pet to the cause of their distress in a safe, monitored environment, until you reach the point that the presence of the apparent stress trigger (such as you leaving the house) becomes so commonplace that it does not cause a negative reaction in your pet.
Desensitization therapy is by no means a quick fix, and can take a long time and a lot of effort on your part to prove effective. An example of how it could work for your pet might involve leaving the house and closing the door, and then immediately coming back in rather than leaving your pet alone. If your pet usually reacts negatively as soon as you close the door to them, they will almost certainly begin to fuss the first time you do this, or even the first fifty times! However, if you keep doing it repeatedly, your pet will eventually get so used to your popping out and popping back in that they will no longer notice or register the door closing and your brief absence. When you reach the point that your pet fails to react right away, begin to build up the time you spend outside to a few minutes before returning, and repeat the process, extending the time away in line with your pet’s reactions.
9. Try calming pheromones
DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) and Feliway (an equivalent product for cats) are synthetic pheromone-based treatments that are available as sprays and room diffusers for both cats and dogs, or as a collar for dogs only. Using the appropriate product for your cat or dog can help to relax them and ease their anxiety, making them calmer and more philosophical about being left alone.
10. Be patient
There is no quick fix for separation anxiety, and tackling it is not something that you can hurry or speed along. Managing and improving separation anxiety in pets can take weeks or months to achieve, and can be time intensive to undertake as well. You may find it helpful to enlist the assistance of a behaviorist to assess your pet’s stress triggers and behavior-patterns, and to help you to work out a comprehensive plan to correct the problem.
Feature Photo of Tricolor Australian Shepherd (Aussie) Puppy Looking Out a Window Copyright: herreid / 123RF Stock Photo