Have you ever come home to find your dog has ransacked your home, barked itself hoarse and peed in your shoes? Maybe you have a cat that is unwilling to eat when you are away from home and follows you from room to room. You are not alone.
Many people find that their pets are becoming increasingly intolerant of being left at home alone. The condition is known as separation anxiety. Pets that are overly dependent on their owners find it difficult to adjust to situations where they are on their own for long periods of time.
Treating affected animals is a lengthy process, and requires a caring and committed owner. Before a pet owner can successfully treat their animal’s behavioral problem, it is helpful to know what causes it.
What causes separation anxiety?
Dogs are most commonly associated with separation anxiety. As former pack animals, they prefer to associate in groups and tend to form strong social bonds with their human owners. Being alone may seem strange or unnatural to them. Many dogs will learn that bad behavior such as crying, barking, or scratching at the door will bring the desired response – human attention.
Thus, the undesirable behavior is self-perpetuating. When an owner responds to their anxious pet by giving it attention (positive or negative), they are reinforcing the bad behavior. For instance, coming home to an upset pet and lavishing love and attention on them reinforces the idea that their behavior is justified. In order to successfully treat your dog, you must first break this cycle.
There are many factors that will contribute to your dog’s feelings of anxiety. Sudden changes may trigger separation anxiety: moving house, the death of a family member, being put in a kennel, a change in your work schedule, etc. For some dogs, the cause may be genetic. Environmental factors such as inadequate socialization, having multiple owners, or being kept in a stressful or abusive environment (e.g. pet shop, shelter) are also contributing factors.
The cause of separation anxiety in cats is less well understood. Some theories suggest that one of the factors is genetics, with certain breeds being more emotionally sensitive and prone to anxiety (e.g. Siamese, Burmese). Environmental factors also play a strong role in the development of behavioral problems.
Animals that have been orphaned, weaned too early, or come from stressful or abusive environments may have a higher likelihood of developing separation anxiety. Any combination of these genetic and environmental factors can result in an overly sensitive and anxious cat or dog.
What are the signs of separation anxiety in dogs?
In dogs the signs of separation anxiety are fairly evident:
• Destructive tendencies (chewing furniture, belongings, etc.)
• Incessant barking, whining or howling in owner’s absence
• Nervous or anxious demeanor
• Frenzied or exuberant behavior at arrival or departure of owner
• Attempts to escape the house in owner’s absence
• Loss of appetite or vomiting
• Urination/defecation inside the house by a housebroken animal (health reasons for incontinence should be ruled out before assuming this problem is assumed to be behavioral)
What are the signs of separation anxiety in a cat?
The signs of separation anxiety in a cat are often far more subtle than those in a dog. Many owners may be unaware of their cat’s behavioral problems for some time before they become evident.
Things to look out for in your cat are:
• Excessive grooming
• Vomiting when the owner is away
• Loss of appetite – your cat may be unwilling to eat when you are not at home
• Obvious distress when it senses you are leaving/exuberant response when you return to the house
• Urinating/Defecating in the house (even though the animal is housebroken)
• Excessive attachment to owner – pet seems unwillingly to let owner out of its sight, following them around the house
• Vocalization – while dog owners often find out about their pet’s constant barking from neighbors, cat owners are unlikely to find out about their cat’s vocalizing (e.g. meowing, crying, etc.) unless they use a tape recorder
How can I prevent my pet from acting this way?
In order to treat your animal, you must take time to assess the severity of its condition. Since pets only display bad behavior when there owners are out of the house, it may be necessary to resort to spying on your pet!
As soon as you leave the house, try to assess how long it takes before your pet starts vocalizing or destroying things. Some pets will immediately begin misbehaving as soon as their owner has closed the door.
The following are a few tips for relieving your pet’s anxiety:
1. Some pets cannot cope when the owner leaves the room, let alone the house. It is essential to tackle this problem first, before moving onto leaving the house. Work on teaching your dog to “sit” and “stay” while you leave the room. Exit the room and then come back almost immediately. Gradually increase this time as your pet learns to cope with your absence. This is a precursor to working on leaving the house.
2. Use the same desensitization techniques for leaving the house as you do for leaving a room. Walk out the door, wait a few minutes, and return. Vary the amount of time you spend outside before coming back in. Quietly exit the house, and then come back. Gradually your animal should become comfortable with your absences.
3. Eliminate the routine! Most people have a routine they go through when they leave the house – they turn off the television or radio, rattle keys, pick up a purse, fuss over their pet, etc. Pets will be tuned into this routine, and become increasingly distressed as they sense their owner’s imminent departure. Do not exacerbate this excitement or distress by fussing over your pet before you leave. Ignore your pet and casually exit the house.
4. Try not to reenter the house when your animal is misbehaving. As they crave attention, this will encourage them to repeat the undesirable behavior.
5. Do not make a fuss over your pet when you return. As mentioned above, when an owner walks in the door and immediately lavishes affectation on their pet, it reinforces their anxious behavior. Enter the house quietly and ignore your cat or dog for the first 10-15 minutes.
6. Once your animal learns to cope with being alone for an hour or two, they can start to make the jump to being on their own for longer periods. This is a gradual process and should not be rushed.
7. Some animals seem to be soothed by background noise coming from a television or radio that has been left on.
8. Leave an assortment of toys for your pet to play with or chew on (putting kibble inside a food puzzle may encourage some anorexic animals to eat).
If these tips are insufficient to improve your pet’s behavior, it may be necessary to consult an animal behaviorist or ask your veterinarian about prescribing an anti-anxiety medication.
Is there anything I shouldn’t do to treat my pet’s separation anxiety?
Never punish your pet for its bad behavior. First, the behavior is instinctive and often uncontrollable for your pet. Plus, animals are unlikely to make the connection between their performance of an undesirable act and you yelling at them unless they are punished within about 20 seconds of the act.
Since most owners do not return until much later, punishing animals is ineffective. Furthermore, some animals regard any attention, even negative attention, as preferable to being alone.
Are anti-anxiety medications a viable option for treating separation anxiety?
Sometimes behavior modification is not enough for severe cases of separation anxiety. In fact, some veterinarians will suggest that behavior training is more effective when medication is used as an adjunctive treatment. As the animal’s behavior slowly improves, they can be weaned off of their medication.
Some helpful medications include:
• Clomipramine (Clomicalm)
• Buspirone (Buspar)
• Fluoxetine (Prozac)
Some of the above medications are human medicines that have been used successfully for animals. Never give these drugs to your animal unless they have been specifically prescribed by a veterinarian.
Separation anxiety is a very distressing condition for pets and their owners. Although it is difficult to treat, the long term benefits of having a happier and healthier pet are well worth the time spent training your pet. If you are worried that your pet may be suffering from separation anxiety, consult your local veterinarian.