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Separation anxiety: does your pet suffer?

Dogs are naturally sociable creatures and form strong bonds with their owners – this close companionship is certainly one of the most rewarding elements of dog ownership! Therefore, it’s entirely understandable, that when left on their own dogs may experience feelings of loneliness and anxiety.

Although dogs should never be left on their own for too long (ideally no more than 4-6 hours), there will be occasions when it is necessary for owners to leave them in their own company. If dogs are taught from an early age how to be left alone in an appropriate manner, then they are much more likely to grow up feeling relaxed and comfortable when left on their own!

Why does separation anxiety occur?

Separation anxiety (also known as separation related behaviours) can occur without any tangible reason and some individuals may have a greater tendency towards developing these behaviours. Some situations can precipitate or exacerbate separation anxiety, such as;

  • A change in routine (e.g., increased periods of isolation due to owners changing work patterns)

  • A change in home environment (e.g., moving house, building work)

  • Loss of a canine companion (bereavement)

  • Boredom

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What are the signs to look out for?

Various behaviours may be demonstrated in a pet with separation anxiety and the signs aren’t always easy to spot due to their subtle nature. If your pet does any of the following it could indicate they are experiencing separation anxiety:

  • Persistent vocalisation (barking, whining, howling)

  • Toileting in inappropriate places (despite being toilet trained)

  • Coprophagia (eating their own faeces)

  • Destructive behaviours (chewing, digging)

  • Trying to escape or follow you (scratching the door, or carpets at exit points)

  • Pacing

  • Panting, salivating

  • Waiting by doors or windows

  • Extreme excitement upon return of their owner

How can I prevent separation anxiety?

With any behavioural problem, the best approach is to try to prevent it developing in the first place. Teaching your dog to cope alone should be incorporated into part of your puppy’s training and early development.

  • Ensure your puppy has a quiet zone that is their space where they are undisturbed.
  • This could be a cosy bed, den or crate covered in blankets.
  • Build a positive association with this space through using treats, chews, toys or pheromone products.
  • Make sure this space is accessible at all times
  • Encourage your puppy to spend time in their space whilst you are doing activities (e.g., cleaning, cooking, reading a book) so they can learn to enjoy spending time independently.

Teaching independence is important to ensure your puppy doesn’t become overly reliant on you and is able to feel comfortable and relaxed when you are not present.

Step 1:

  • Begin by moving a short distance away from your puppy and return with a reward if they remain settled.
  • Gradually increase the distance and duration by exiting the room and returning with a reward if your puppy remains settled.
  • If your puppy follows you, don’t punish or tell them off as scolding them may cause them to be anxious and any interaction (good or bad) may encourage them to follow you.
  • Instead, remain neutral and redirect them back to their space (e.g., by placing a toy or long-lasting treat in their bed/crate).

Step 2:

  • The next step is to add in a physical boundary by sectioning off part of the house (that incorporates their safe space such as where their bed or crate is).
  • A stair gate is a good way of doing this because your puppy can still see and hear you.
  • Give your puppy a long-lasting treat (e.g., chew or enriched feeder) and exit this zone.
  • Initially only leave for short periods of time and remain within close proximity, gradually increasing the length of time and distance (such as going further away so you are out of your puppies’ sight).
  • If your puppy cries it is important not to rush back in to comfort them as this will be seen as a reward for crying.
  • You also shouldn’t ignore them, as this can increase their anxiety, which could result in them being fearful about being left.
  • Instead, decrease the distance between you and your puppy until they settle, this might involve sitting on the other side of the stair gate, so that they are comforted by your presence and don’t feel ignored.
  • Once settled, you should then open the stair gate so that they can have free access and leave it a few hours before you reattempt the exercise, starting at a shorter distance/duration than the previous attempt and working back up from there.

Step 3:

  • Once your puppy is comfortable and settled for periods of up to an hour, you can try repeating the exercise by starting to leave the house, initially for shorter periods again (e.g., 5-10 minutes) and then increase the time spent away.

Don’t leave your pet for more than 4-6 hours. If you are at work all day, it will be necessary for you to pop home at lunch or arrange for a dog walker/sitter.

Try to provide access to as much of the house as is safe and possible to do so and ensure that the space is free of toxins or hazards .

Make use of long-lasting treats and enrichment feeders (e.g, puzzle feeders or filled Kong toys) to keep your dog occupied.

How can I manage separation anxiety?

If your pet is already displaying signs of separation anxiety, then it is important to work on teaching your dog to cope independently so that they feel comfortable left alone. It is recommended to speak to your vet and also enlist the help of a qualified behaviourist.

Make sure your dog has had a chance to have some exercise and go to the toilet before you leave them.

Be prepared – get everything ready to leave gradually and in a calm manner (rather than rushing around) as your pet will pick up on your stress and this may make them feel anxious.

 

Try to provide access to as much of the house as is safe and possible to do so and ensure that the space is free of toxins or hazards .

Some of the signs (e.g., urinating indoors) associated with separation anxiety can be caused by health problems or certain medications so it is important to discuss your concerns with your vet to rule out medical issues.

Separation related behaviours require time and patience to resolve.

  • You should follow the same steps outlined in the prevention of separation anxiety.
  • Be prepared that for dogs that have already developed separation anxiety, the process of teaching independence will need to be done very gradually.
  • Avoid common mistakes, such as punishing your dog if they have toileted in the house, or chewed something they shouldn’t have.
  • Punishment can result in confusion and further anxiety, and does nothing to help them learn to cope on their own.
  • Do not use shock or spray collars
  • Don’t make a big deal of arriving home. Whilst it’s tempting to make a huge fuss of our pets as soon as we step through the door, this increases the excitement of your return and can increase the anxiety of being alone.
  • Instead remain neutral and gently acknowledge your pet, so that you are not ignoring them, nor overly fussing them.
  • If your dog exhibits coprophagia as part of their separation anxiety then you can find out further information on tackling this here.

It is recommended to seek the advice of a qualified behaviourist to provide professional guidance to help resolve separation anxiety. They can be found at www.apbc.org.uk or www.asab.org/ccab.

There are a range of products available to complement your preventative and management strategies when it comes to separation anxiety. These might include anti-anxiety prescription medications, relaxing nutraceutical supplements or pheromone-based products. Speak to your vet for further recommendations and advice.

Stress and anxiety in dogs and cats can be caused by many things!

Check out our range of free behavioural advice from our vet team.

Noise phobia
Moving home with a pet
Visiting the vet
Introducing a new pet
Car travel with pets
Buying a puppy or kitten
Creating a cat friendly home
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