Separation Anxiety: Helping Your Pets When The Kids Go Back To School

separation anxietyPets and humans have much in common. One characteristic of both is that they can suffer from anxiety, specifically separation anxiety.  During the back to school season, pets can experience this distress when your children leave for school and their owners leave for work.  The alone time can be scary for pets, causing separation anxiety.  Some pets will become agitated while their owners are preparing to leave, trying to stop them from going.  Usually, right after a guardian leaves, a dog will begin barking and displaying other behaviors of distress after a short time of being home alone – often within minutes.  When the owner returns, the pet may act as though they haven’t seen the guardian in years!

When treating a dog with separation anxiety, the goal is to resolve the pet’s underlying anxiety by teaching the pet to enjoy, or at least tolerate, being alone.  This is done by setting things up so that they experience being alone without the fear or anxiety.

Some common signs of separation anxiety include urinating, defecating, barking, howling, chewing, digging, destruction, escaping, pacing, and coprophagia; when a pet eats some of their own excrement.  The pets may or may not perform these behaviors in the presence of their owners.

There is no conclusive evidence of why pets develop this kind of anxiety.  Some situations have been found as triggers for pets, showing they have anxiety.  These are a change of guardian or family, a change in schedule, a change is residence, or a change in household membership; this is the sudden absence of a resident family member due to death or moving away.

It is important to rule out some medical or behavioral problems. These can be caused by incontinence, medications, submissive or excitement urination, incomplete house training, urine marking, puppy destruction, excessive barking and howling, and just plain boredom.  The dogs with these problems often don’t appear anxious.  If your pet shows these symptoms, there are plenty of online resources that will help, or you can contact your veterinarian.  

A pets’ anxiety can be mild to severe.  Treatment for mild separation anxiety can reduce or resolve the problem.  Counterconditioning is a treatment process that changes an animal’s fearful, anxious or aggressive reaction to a pleasant, relaxed one instead.  It is done by associating the sight or presence of a feared situation with something really good, something the pet loves.  This may be their favorite treat, toy, or delicious food.  Over time, the pet learns that being alone brings good things.  To develop the good association, every time you leave the house, you can offer your pet a puzzle toy stuffed with food that will take them 20-30 minutes to complete.  A great brand for this is KONG.  You can stuff it with something tasty such as low-fat cream cheese, spray cheese, low-fat peanut butter, frozen banana and cottage cheese, even canned dog food and kibble. KONG toys can be frozen, to extend the amount of time it takes to getting all of the food out of the chew toy.  This only works if these toys and treats are only available during time the owner is around and if they are only mildly anxious. Highly anxious pets usually won’t eat when their owners are not around.

Moderate to high separation anxiety requires a more complex program to desensitize their fear.  You can read more on these programs on ASPCA’s website.

It is important to ensure that your pet never experiences the full-blown version of whatever provokes their anxiety.  Your pet must experience only a low-intensity version that doesn’t frighten them.  Without doing this, they won’t learn to feel calm and comfortable in situations that upset them.  This all means that during your and your pets’ desensitization process,  your pet cannot be left alone except during their sessions.  If possible, take your pet to work with you.  Ask for a family member, friend, or hire a dog sitter to stay with your pet while you are away.

While away, crates can provide a safe place when left alone.  However, with some pets, crates cause more stress and anxiety.  Crates do require training, and you should monitor your pets’ behavior during the training.

Other ways to decrease your pets’ stress include mental and physical ways to keep your pet busy.  Some activities include aerobic activity, interactive games, walks, and reward-based training classes.  Medication may help some dogs; to find out, contact your veterinarian.  

Lastly, NEVER scold or punish your pet due to anxious behaviors.  They are simply distress behaviors.

Separation anxiety is something that can be scary for owners and pets.  Using the above methods can reduce their fear of being alone during the day, allowing them to look forward to the end of the day –  when their owners come home!