Desensitisation and counterconditioning are ways to treat separation anxiety but ideally, we will prevent our pets from suffering in the first place.
SIGNS OF ANXIETY
There are many different clinical signs to suggest separation anxiety. These include:
- Barking or howling
- Urinating and defecating in the house
- Chewing, digging, and other destruction-type behaviours
Many pets will display many of these symptoms, but some may only display a few. If you witness your dog displaying any of these symptoms, stay calm. Do not give your pet excessive attention when they display these symptoms as your pet may see this as a reward. Equally, do not get angry as this will make your pet fearful over a scenario they have little control over.
WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP MY PET’S ANXIETY?
If your pet suffers with anxiety, you should try to leave them in a room they already spend most of their time in when you are absent. Allowing only access to one room will benefit your pet as it can become their “safe place”. Sometimes when pets are stressed, they destroy furniture. It is a good idea to remove anything you do not want being destroyed. Your pet should have access to water, food and a comfortable bed.
Before you leave your pet, make sure you have given them adequate exercise. This means they are more likely to relax when they are alone.
Try not to change too many other things in your pet’s life. Many pets enjoy a routine and we as owners form a large part of that routine. Your pet is already going through a huge lifestyle change as their companion and leader is no longer around all the time, so try to avoid making this stressful time more daunting by altering other factors of their life such as diet, walk routine and sleeping pattern.
Ensuring your pet has entertainment while you aren’t around is a good idea. Below are a few ideas as to how to keep your pet entertained:
- Toys – lots of variety (make sure they are sturdy and safe, though)
- Treats inside objects (such as a Kong) for them to sniff out and eat
- Turning the radio/TV on
- Putting ice cubes inside their water dish
If your pet toilets in the house, you could put puppy pads down on the floor to make it easier for you to clean up.
HOW TO REDUCE OR PREVENT SEPARATION ANXIETY
To reduce the impact and severity of separation anxiety, you should practise leaving your pet alone while you go out for short periods of time. This helps to make sure your pet gets used to being in the house alone. This needs to be a gradual process so start by leaving your pet alone for very short periods of time. You need to prevent your pet from feeling frightened, as this will have a negative effect.
To do this, you need to remind your pet that they are fine alone and do not need constant attention. Knowing that you always return is a good way to get your pet feeling more comfortable. It’s important to start small, with just a few minutes absence from the room they’re in, then returning and rewarding calm behaviour. Over time, very gradually build up to actually leaving the house for a short period. Remember, each individual will react slightly differently, so monitor your pet throughout. If they seem very distressed, go back a step and start again.
If you have had to return to work already and your pet is suffering, there are a few things you can do. You could ask that a neighbour pops in to say hello to your pet and make sure they are ok. Alternatively, you could employ a dog walker to come and walk your dog around midday to help break the day up, meaning your pet will not be alone for such long periods. You can also put in place measures – such as a radio and toys – to help make sure your dog stays entertained while you are absent.
WHAT CAN THE VET DO TO HELP MY PET’S ANXIETY?
Normally, pet anxiety can be treated at home, however in extreme cases; you may need the help of your vet. If your pet’s anxiety continues over a long period and you feel you need veterinary attention, the vet will need to see your pet in order to perform a full clinical exam. They may decide to prescribe anxiolytics, which help to calm your pet down. In these more severe cases, our vets may also recommend a referral to a canine clinical behaviourist for advice.
Separation anxiety can be overcome. Together, we need patience and consistency and we will see changes.