Separation Anxiety in Dogs & Cats

Separation Anxiety in Dogs and Cats

  1. What is Separation Anxiety in Pets?
  2. Signs of Separation Anxiety
  3. What Causes Separation Anxiety?
  4. Diagnosing Separation Anxiety
  5. How to Help a Pet with Separation Anxiety

What is Separation Anxiety in Cats and Dogs?

Separation anxiety is when a dog or cat exhibits signs of extreme stress when left alone. The animal panics and displays unwanted behaviors such as barking, shaking, bathroom accidents and more.

This condition most often affects dogs, but cats may also struggle with anxiety.

Signs of Separation Anxiety

Pets who get anxious when left alone may exhibit symptoms of separation anxiety such as:

  • Barking or meowing after the owner has left
  • Pacing back and forth
  • Chewing furniture
  • Mutilating plants
  • Scratching at windows and doors 
  • Following owner from room to room when the owner is getting ready to leave
  • An overly-enthusiastic greeting upon the owners return
  • Potty accidents near a door or on the owner's personal items
  • Vomiting only when the owner is not there
  • Excessive grooming, to the point of creating a bald spot

Dogs with separation anxiety disorder get destructive as they panic. They’ve broken through windows, destroyed door frames and bloodied their mouths and paws.

Unfortunately, these behaviors sometimes cause owners to give up their pets to a Humane Society or other shelter. It doesn’t have to be that way. Separation anxiety is an issue pet owners can fix with a little time and training.

What Causes Separation Anxiety?

Veterinary experts aren’t sure why some dogs and cats suffer from separation anxiety and others are okay all alone. Like humans, each animal has a distinct personality. Some are more independent than others.

Causes of separation anxiety in dogs may include:

  • Instinct. Dogs are pack animals and love to be together.
  • Genetics. A dog may be genetically predisposed to anxiety. Then stress triggers the condition.
  • Breed disposition. Some breeds are more prone to anxiety than others. Do some research into your dog’s breed to see if this could be part of the issue.
  • Lack of socialization as puppies. Dogs who weren’t socialized as puppies may experience more anxiety when left alone.
  • Rehoming. Dogs who have been re-homed may not want to let their new humans out of their sight.
  • Trauma. Dogs who have been through a trauma such as a robbery or earthquake may associate being alone with feeling scared.
  • Dominance issues. Dominant dogs or dogs who are confused by the social structure in the home may be trying to look for their pack or feel abandoned by the leader.
  • Strange noises. Loud noises from neighbors or street noise could trigger fear responses in your dog. You could set up a video camera while you’re gone or try to spy through a window to see what’s going on.

Causes of separation anxiety in domestic cat breeds:

  • Genetic factors
  • Environmental factors
  • Being an orphan
  • Weaning early
  • Sudden loss of a person or another pet in the household

Diagnosing Separation Anxiety

Diagnosing separation anxiety in dogs:

Separation anxiety is signs of distress that occur only when your dog doesn’t have access to you. This is different than unruly behavior in daily life, or lack of dog training on proper manners.

Your veterinarian can perform a physical exam to rule out any underlying disorders that could be affecting your pet’s behavior.

If your dog is anxious and stressed all the time—not just when you leave the house—your vet can help you find the underlying cause. A veterinary behaviorist specializes in helping pet owners figure out these types of issues.

Diagnosing signs of anxiety in cats:

If your cat is showing signs of distress when you’re gone, first talk to your veterinarian. Your vet can examine your pet to rule out underlying physical problems. For example, a cat who is urinating outside the litterbox may have a urinary tract infection (UTI.

A cat who is over-grooming may not feel stressed. She could have a food allergy. Your vet may recommend blood tests, a chemistry profile, urinalysis, thyroid testing and blood pressure check to figure out what’s going on.

An animal behaviorist can help you rule out other anxiety-related behaviors.

How to Help Pets with Separation Anxiety

There is treatment available to help pets terrified to be alone.

The first step is to make sure all the human family members in the house, even young children, try to keep emotions under control. Separation anxiety can create a vicious cycle: You return to find your house destroyed. You get upset at your pet. Your pet gets even more upset because they now associate you leaving with you coming home upset with them. This pattern can repeat until things feel hopeless.

Remember that separation anxiety isn’t a reflection of how much you love your pet. Two pets of the same breed living with the same owner can display completely different behaviors.

Conventional treatment:

Conventional treatment for separation anxiety includes antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication. These pharmaceuticals can have serious side effects, and not all are tested for veterinary use. Many pet owners seek a more natural alternative.

Natural remedies for separation anxiety:

There are many safe and effective natural remedies to help your pet deal with the anxiety of being home alone.

PetCalm™ Granules for Pet Anxiety is a homeopathic medicine for nervous and high- strung pets. It calms anxious and stressed pets and supports nervous system health.

Herbs such as Scutellaria laterifolia (Scullcap) and Passiflora incarnata are two of the best known natural remedies for soothing the nervous system. These herbs may be used every day or occasionally when needed.

Hypericum perforatum (St. John's Wort) is often referred to as ‘nature’s Prozac’ due to its support of emotional wellbeing.

Kalium phosphate and Argentum nitricum are biochemic tissue salts that can naturally help support the animal’s nervous system. They address panic, nervousness, anxiety and fright on a cellular level.

Tips for dealing with separation anxiety:

  • Ignore your pets for about 15 minutes before leaving and upon returning home. This helps them to stabilize their mood and not be so dependent on your presence. Leave and come home quietly, without making a big deal about your return.
  • Leave your pet with a distracting toy or a treat dispenser to keep them occupied while you’re gone.
  • As often as you can, step out the front door while your pet is watching and again when he is not watching. Vary how long you stay out, from a few minutes to an hour. This will help your pet get used to the idea of being alone. 
  • Mix up your routine. As you get ready to leave, grab your car keys from different locations in the house. Exit through different doors. This breaks the habit of association for your pet. 
  • A tired dog is a happy dog, and more likely to sleep than get into trouble.  Try taking him on a long walk right before you leave.
  • Feed your pet before you leave. A meal with complex carbohydrates like oatmeal can fill her stomach, making her sleepy and relaxed.
  • Leave the TV or radio on as ‘company’ for your pet when you leave the house.
  • Speak to your vet about whether a second pet could help the situation.
  • Talk with an animal behaviorist to develop a plan that helps your pet adjust to your absence.

 

 

References:

  1. “Separation Anxiety.” The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Accessed September 8, 2021. https://indoorpet.osu.edu/cats/problemsolving/separation-anxiety
  2. “Separation Anxiety.” ASPCA. Accessed September 8, 2021. https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/dog-care/common-dog-behavior-issues/separation-anxiety
  3. Gibeault, S. “Dog Separation Anxiety: Causes, Prevention and How to Stop.” American Kennel Club. Accessed September 8, 2021. https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/dog-separation-anxiety-how-to-stop/
  4. McConnell, P. “I’ll Be Home Soon.” Patricia McConnell. Accessed September 8, 2021. https://www.patriciamcconnell.com/store/product/i-ll-be-home-soon