Dealing with Separation Anxiety in Dogs
There is a truth that we all know well, everything in life extracts a fee. All things come at some cost. If we wish to live in a nice house, travel, and provide for our families, we must work. If we wish to keep our bodies healthy and strong, we watch what we eat, and spend time exercising. We see this truth in all the life experiences we encounter each and every day, large and small. It is even true with our pets. As we begin a post pandemic return to work, play, and travel, we may find there are consequences to our pets having spent so much time with us. Many pets will adapt without any issues at all, but some may have trouble adjusting to a life without our constant presence.
Adoption rates for pets skyrocketed during the pandemic. There have been some reports of both shelters and breeders struggling to meet demand for pets in certain areas of the country. Knowing family members would be spending most of their time at home seemed the perfect excuse for adopting a new pet, and helping it adjust to family life. Most pets, especially those coming from shelters, likely relished the new sense of security and comfort in these pandemic homes.
Post Pandemic Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Some pets may have post pandemic adjustment issues including separation anxiety. Dogs with separation anxiety exhibit signs of distress, panic, or depression whenever they are separated from their caretakers or left home alone. It is one of the most common behavioral issues we see in veterinary practice. Signs of separation anxiety include barking and howling, chewing or destructive behavior, urinating or defecating in the house, and attempting to escape. Veterinary behavior experts worry we will see more cases of separation anxiety post pandemic because young puppies or newly homed dogs have not had the benefit of short periods of time alone. Prior to the pandemic, it was estimated that 22-50% of the general dog population experienced some level of separation anxiety, and some 14-44% of all behavior related consultations were due to pet owners seeking help for this condition. Post pandemic numbers may be higher than this.
Separation anxiety is considered a syndrome, a constellation of clinical signs, with potentially varied causes. Therefore, it can be difficult to suggest a one-size-fits-all means of prevention or treatment. Research to date suggests a combination of behavioral modification, training, and medications can help improve clinical signs.
No one knows exactly what causes separation anxiety, and the answer is likely multifactorial. Some dogs may be predisposed to showing clinical signs of separation anxiety due to genetically possessing a more high-strung or nervous temperament, usually however, the signs are often initiated by some major life change. Major life changes include a change in caretaker, change in household, or major change in daily routine. Caretakers going back to work or school full time certainly qualifies as a change in routine.
Ways to Mitigate These Issues
So, how can one try to prevent separation anxiety in dogs? Establishing a consistent routine seems to be key. Puppies should be crate trained, and taught early on that time spent in their crate alone is associated with good things. Start with very short periods of time alone in the crate initially, slowly graduating to longer periods over time. Providing your puppy with a Kong toy filled with peanut butter or kibble will help connect your absence with something positive– food. This approach may also help dogs with mild separation anxiety lessen their concerns. The distraction of a toy treat, given only when you leave, can be just enough to make them calm down and relax while you are away.
Dogs with severe separation anxiety, however, may prove more difficult. These dogs can become very anxious even as you go about preparing to leave, the sight of you putting on your shoes, or picking up the keys to the car can trigger panic. These dogs may be too anxious to enjoy a treat-filled Kong, therefore making counter conditioning, and forming the positive association between food and alone time difficult.
As the cause of separation anxiety, especially in severe cases, is multifactorial and treatment includes both behavioral modification and medications, involving a specialist in veterinary behavior is very important. The veterinarians at Longwood Veterinary Center are available to discuss your concerns, troubleshoot treatments plans, and if needed, help find you a specialist best suited to the task at hand. We are here to help ensure you and your pets have a smooth transition into post pandemic life. Contact us with any needs.