Pets and the Pandemic: Separation Anxiety

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    It’s no secret that there has been a huge surge in pet adoptions and purchases during the pandemic as people are home more, get lonely, and want the company of a pet companion. A survey by Rover showed that 93% of people who got a “pandemic pet felt that their mental and/or physical well-being improved. The result? An epidemic of pets with separation anxiety. The amount of adoptions has been so great that certain animal shelters started running out of animals! Here are the stats from that same Rover survey:

    • Of the people who adopted in the last year, 53% brought home a dog, 32% a cat, and 14% both a dog and cat.
    • 64% of pet parents adopted (40% from a rescue or nonprofit organization and 24% from another family).
    • 26% of pet parents purchased their cat or dog from a breeder
    sir Patrick Stewart and wife with puppies
    Photo Credit: Charlie Nunn Photography

    Unfortunately, since everyone has been home so often, our pets have gotten used to that. They have gotten used to us working from home 5 days a week and barely leaving the house. Especially in young puppies, this behavior can create separation anxiety for dogs. Separation anxiety is the anxiety or panic an animal feels when separated from their human. This could happen immediately after separation or after a few hours. Rover stated that: 

    • Nearly half of those surveyed (40%) reported they were anxious about going back to in-person work and leaving their pet at home.
    • 20% of respondents have already left their pet during the day to go to work. 
    • 43% anticipate their first commute away from their pet to be between March-June 2021.
    • An outlier 9% think they will continue to work from home past October 2021.
    Brittany spaniel dog looking out a window with chin on window sill looking sad

    How Do I Know If My Pet Has Separation Anxiety?

    Some dogs don’t understand that when you leave, it means you’re coming back due to their cognitive abilities. The most frequent symptoms of separation anxiety are vocalizing, salivation, disruptive behavior, particularly near exits such as doors and windows, urination or defecation indoors/in undesirable places, loss of appetite while alone, self-trauma such as licking or chewing when alone, and attempted or active escapes. Action such as attempting to escape can be very dangerous and result in injury. Please note that this applies to any dog that may have separation anxiety, not just “pandemic pets”.

    boston terrier detroys door

    How Can I Prepare My Pets? 

    After months up to a year of your new dog being by your side, how do you ensure they don’t completely destroy your home when you’re at work or continuously cry and howl?  To start, dogs, in general, need both physical and mental stimulation in order to tire themselves out. This is the first step when it comes to making sure your pet will be fine when home alone. Before leaving, take them for a long walk or play fetch in the backyard. Provide them enrichment puzzles or something like a frozen Kong filled with peanut butter to keep them occupied. Crate training also gives your pets a safe space while you are away while also preventing them from destruction or attempts to escape. 

    dog playing with outward hound puzzle

    You will also want to teach your pet how to be on their own and not freak out when you’re not around and to not even need the tools mentioned above. This is called Independence Training which can be done on your own or with the help of a certified trainer. You can find a certified trainer through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers or Association of Professional Dog Trainers. Independence Training allows the pet to be at ease as the owner leaves or goes out, and to rest without having their owner around 24/7, plus hyper-attachment can be reduced as a result of this. When working on Independence Training, you will want to work on letting your dog nap or relax during the day in a certain location.

    You may also want to provide them a treat or chew in this desired location. Once the pet is comfortable, give positive reinforcement and continue on with what you are doing around the house to show they don’t need to be by your side. Depending on the severity of the separation anxiety, this may need to be done at a slower pace. The Downtime exercise lets your dog develop and sustain the habit of spending time alone. Another part of Independence Training is teaching “go to place” which is effective in teaching your pet to go to a desired location on their own without your assistance. 

    duck tolling retreiver on a dog bed under a blanket

    Also, don’t make it a big deal when you leave. This can just add to your dog’s anxiety and cause them to become hyperactive. Dog’s can become accustomed to certain sounds or actions that indicate you are leaving, which can cause distress. Work on making these actions not a big deal by doing things like picking up your keys throughout the day, putting your shoes on and not leaving the house, and continue on with your daily activities. The overall goal is to stop having a connection between departure signals and fear about being alone in the pet’s head. Practicing these strategies for pets that aren’t having separation anxiety will help prevent them from developing it in the future, which is particularly important given that our schedules might be dramatically altered.

    Once your dog is able to stay in a location, work on practice separations by putting them in place and leaving the room for short periods of time. Issue positive reinforcement when your dog stays and remains calm. Eventually, you can start building on longer separation that includes leaving the house. A pet camera is also a useful tool to ensure your dog is staying calm without you.

    Can I Give My Dog Anything Else to Help With Separation Anxiety?

    There are supplements that can help relieve stress and anxiety, both over-the-counter medication/supplements and veterinary prescribed medication. Your vet should be consulted before giving your dog any kind of medication or supplement. You can review product recommendations for stress relief here!

    dog being given a pill for separation anxiety

    Your veterinarian may also be able to give recommendations in cases of separation anxiety ranging from mild to severe.

    Find a board-certified behaviorist near you!

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