In Minnesota, while it may feel like we’ve been social distancing for 100 years, it’s been closer to four weeks. Your pet, however, may feel as though it’s always been this way and expect it to continue in this fashion, even after life has gone back to a more “normal” state. After so much time with you, your pet could develop separation anxiety when you return to work.
Separation anxiety is distress that manifests in a pet when it’s separated from its owner. Symptoms of this challenging-to-cure disorder include: urinating and defecating in the house, barking, and chewing on objects – even door frames, window sills, and drywall. In cats, vocalization is also common, as is inappropriate urination, destructive behavior, and excessive self-grooming often resulting in bald patches. In rabbits, signs of stress during your departure may signal separation anxiety. These may include lethargy or lack of interest in surroundings, being aggressive when handled, overgrooming, or showing repeated movements that are unusual for your pet or just don’t make sense – like biting its cage and food bowl or circling.
No one knows what makes some pets more prone to developing separation anxiety than others. Veterinarians have seen, however, that it often develops in pets that are rarely left alone – presumably because these animals don’t develop (or they lose over time) the skills and confidence to be home without support. If your pet is fairly new to your home (shelter-in-place adoptions, anyone?) then he or she is even more at risk for developing separation anxiety. So what do we do to help ensure our pets don’t develop separation anxiety when we return to leaving home more frequently?
1. Prep Your Pet
If you and Fluffy have been inseparable until now, it’s time to get some space! Even if you have nowhere to go, it’s time to leave the house without your pet. You don’t have to leave for eight hours. Take several short walks or bike rides around the block throughout the day. Have a cell phone conversation from your garage or surf Facebook from your yard. Your pet shouldn’t be able to see or hear you, however. These short separations are like training wheels for the real thing. Over the period of a week, increase the length of the separations. If at any time you return to see evidence of stress or separation anxiety as described above, dial down the length of your absences and start again.
2. Provide Diversion
Your pet doesn’t have to go it alone, however. Puzzle toys, LickiMats, and even DIY games such as these Boredom Busters or the muffin tin game can help keep your pet’s mind on something other than your absence. Automated toys can provide a ton of fun for cats. I give my dog a Kong that has soft cheese in it when I leave the house. She only gets this treat when I leave the house. Special treats will help any food-motivated pet to feel better about being alone.
Many people like to leave the TV or radio on to provide some ambient noise, too. Cats may enjoy some cat TV with squirrels or fish. If your pet enjoys a kennel, utilize that as a safe haven for your absences. If your pet is a puppy or a dog that is brand new to your house, crate training is definitely recommended to start things off on the right foot.
3. Remain Calm
Sometimes, we unwittingly worsen our pet’s anxiety. If you’re nervous about leaving your pet, therefore you say goodbye three times and keep reassuring him that you’ll be back soon, your pet will pick up on your fear and also be fearful. Say one casual and brief goodbye, and then out the door you go. Similarly, make your return uneventful. He or she will still be happy to see you, but your body language and voice should show that it was “no big deal” that you were gone.
We hope these tips can help you prevent separation anxiety in your pet. If you find your pet has separation anxiety, you can learn more about treatment of the disorder here.