Not only has our world changed over the past year and a half, our pets’ worlds have changed too. Everyone has had such a tough past year. The human-animal bond is so strong that our pets can detect when we are stressed, or when we are going through a tough time. However, they have certainly loved the fact that their owners are at home more often. Some owners who are working in their homes are with their pets all day. So as a result, we may see a rise in separation anxiety in pets whose owners have to leave home, either to go to work, or start venturing out more than they have this past year. Therefore, we need to be aware of signs specific to separation anxiety, and what options we have to help them. They have been our friend and great therapy for us through all of these changes, so the least we can do, is to help reduce their anxiety.
Signs of Separation Anxiety
Some signs you may recognize in your pet that indicate they may be experiencing anxiety when separated from you can vary depending on your pet. Each pet is so different and has their own personality. Some dogs will show overt signs such as acting agitated or restless when they observe signs of you leaving. They may start having inappropriate urination or defecation while you are out (especially with cats). You may notice salivation prior to leaving or when you get back from the stress they are experiencing. Some pets will become destructive (chewing, digging, scratching, etc), or start vocalizing or panting more. Some less noticed signs would include your pet becoming less active than normal, a decreased appetite, hypervigilance around the owner, or they may start some attention seeking behavior. If a pet is stressed, they can even start to have vomiting or diarrhea and become dehydrated. If any of these are noted, you will want to have your pet evaluated.
Ruling out Medical Causes
As a first step, you will want your vet to rule out medical causes and not assume it is due to separation anxiety. An examination to evaluate for any other underlying concerns or causes of stress will be performed, as well as a blood panel to check your pet systemically. The exam can evaluate for dehydration, ear infections, abdominal pain, enlarged lymph nodes, vitals, etc. The blood panel will evaluate for blood cell counts, liver and kidney values, glucose, protein, electrolytes, etc. This will ensure there isn’t an underlying medical cause for the stress or anxiety. If there is vomiting and/or diarrhea, a fecal or radiographs may be indicated as well. If there are medical causes, those causes can be addressed first. However, if no medical causes are noted, then as a diagnosis of exclusion we may determine their stress/anxiety is due to behavioral causes. We can then confirm it is “separation anxiety” if the signs are specific to when you leave home or are separated from your pet.
Treatment for Behavioral Causes
If medical causes have been ruled out, then treatment for behavioral causes can be started. It is good to start with an integrative neutraceutical approach with behavior training first, and monitor for your pet’s response. Start with an Adaptil diffuser plug-in in your home for your dog, or a Feliway diffuser for your cat (if you have a multi cat home, then use Feliway multicat diffuser). These are species specific pheromone treatments that have been shown to help promote calmness, reduce anxiety, and reduce some behavior issues. The diffuser covers about 700 sq feet in your home and lasts about a month (refills can be purchased). You can plug this in near your pet’s crate, where they sleep, or where they spend more time.
Along with the pheromone diffuser, your vet may also recommend an herbal supplement to promote calmness, such as Composure Pro treats made by VetriScience. A thundershirt can also help some patients who have anxiety, even if there is no thunder. This is a comforting body wrap that some pets respond well to. These recommendations along with some behavior training can go a long way with many patients. Using a crate to help a pet feel safe can be helpful in some dogs, but some dogs have a lot of anxiety in a crate. The main goal is that they are kept safe, trying to avoid them hurting themselves or destroying the home.
If the more natural approach, along with behavioral training, does not cause full resolution of signs, there are also behavioral modification medications that can be started. Situational medications may be recommended as needed depending on the situation (for instance, once whenever you leave home). A maintenance medication is one that is given on a daily basis in cases that require them and situational medications have not given enough help (maintenance medications may take up to 6-8 weeks before full effectiveness). Both the situational and maintenance medications can cause some sedation, but are usually started at a low dose and monitored to determine if they should be increased.
What is this behavioral training I’ve been mentioning? Well, this can be the most effective means of helping our furry friends. Again, depending on your pet, different training may be helpful. One example would be slowly increasing planned departures, an exercise where you practice “leaving” prior to actually leaving. This is a good exercise to practice now prior to going back to the office, or prior to your pet showing signs of separation anxiety. You can start with going for a walk and feeding a good meal, making sure all of your pet’s needs have been met, then leave your pet in a separate room while you go upstairs, or shut yourself in a separate room. You can practice this multiple times, with increased time intervals, until your pet gets more used to not being in the same room with you. If your pet is already calm and has no anxiety with that exercise, you can then try just going outside, increasing the time you are gone, a little at a time. A friend can help by stopping by and checking on your pet in the beginning to give a treat and promote a positive experience while you are out. This can help plan for acquired pandemic separation anxiety. Hopefully, this will not be an issue for you and your pet. But, if you have spent a lot of the past year at home, it would be good to practice these independence exercises to prepare ahead and see how your pet does.
So, if you have spent a lot of extra time at home, these exercises may be beneficial for you. However, if you notice changes in behavior with your pet that are specific to when you leave them, you may want to schedule an appointment to have them evaluated to determine if separation anxiety may be the issue. Dogs are such a gift to us and are worth giving our greatest care to so that they do not suffer in silence.
Dr. Melissa Kerns