Does your pet overreact when you leave the house? They may have separation anxiety, a behavior disorder that causes intense panic and distress in dogs and cats who are left alone, or separated from their primary guardian. 

While someone missing you can be flattering, pets with separation anxiety express their grief with inappropriate, often destructive, behavior. Somerset Animal Hospital wants to help you understand and recognize separation anxiety, so you can act before this progressive condition worsens.

What causes separation anxiety in pets?

Adopted shelter pets and those who have undergone significant life changes are more likely to show separation anxiety signs, or become over-attached to their owners. Separation anxiety may manifest during or after:

  • Changes to the family unit, including the death or absence of a family member or fellow pet
  • Relocation
  • Significant changes in the home routine
  • Decreased owner presence (e.g., you or your children returning to work or school after a prolonged time at home)

What are separation anxiety signs in pets?

Many owners misinterpret their pet’s destructive and disruptive behaviors as spiteful, yet dogs and cats cannot comprehend vengeance. Your stuffing-less couch that looks like payback is more likely a sign of suffering. Pets relieve excessive internal distress by acting on their environment in an attempt to feel better. Separation anxiety signs, which commonly begin before the owner’s departure, or directly after the owner leaves, can include:

  • Pacing
  • Panting and drooling
  • House soiling 
  • Vocalization
  • Destructive behavior
  • Escape behavior, often causing self-harm
  • Dramatic greetings when the owner returns 

Although separation anxiety most commonly affects dogs, cats are also diagnosed with this condition. Cats typically demonstrate their anxiety with house soiling (e.g., many cats urinate exclusively on their owner’s personal items and bedding), increased vocalization, and excessive grooming.

How is separation anxiety diagnosed in pets?

An examination and lab work is necessary to rule out all potential medical causes for your pet’s behavior change. Liver, kidney, endocrine, neurologic, and age-related diseases are common reasons for house soiling and behavior changes. Medical management for these conditions may improve your pet’s signs. 

If your pet is in good health, separation anxiety and other behavior problems are considered more likely. The veterinarian will review your pet’s emotional and behavioral history, including how and where you acquired your pet, any training, past behavior issues, and recent lifestyle changes. 

Inadequate training, reactivity, and other behavioral issues also may be mistaken for separation anxiety. Pets with separation anxiety show signs exclusively during their owner’s impending departure or absence, never when they are present. 

How is separation anxiety treated in pets?

Pets affected with mild separation anxiety may improve with a few lifestyle changes. Regular exercise, a predictable routine, and mental enrichment, such as interactive toys and games, may help your pet cope when you are away.

More severe cases require a two-pronged approach, including medical therapy and behavior modification. 

  • Medication — Anti-anxiety drugs can address your pet’s emotional state by increasing the serotonin levels in their brain. The medication helps your pet stay calm, without sedation or personality change. 
  • Behavior modification — Many owners avoid behavior modification, which can be a lengthy process. Unfortunately, that will negatively affect your anxious pet’s quality of life, and decrease treatment efficacy. Behavior modification includes providing your pet with the following:
    • A calm environment — Minimizing departures during initial treatment will keep your pet’s anxiety low and prevent relapse. 
    • Regular exercise — Daily physical activity decreases stress, relieves boredom, and improves sleep.
    • Consistent routine — Predictability improves your pet’s comfort and confidence.
    • Mental enrichment — Sniff-walks, puzzle-toys, and training will engage your pet’s mind, encourage problem-solving, foster independence, and improve their quality of life.
    • Successful experiences — Providing interactive pet puzzles or durable food-filled toys will help your pet learn to cope in your absence. If a crate stresses your pet, confine them to a small room to prevent panic or injury.

Can separation anxiety be prevented in pets?

Pets raised in the home from an early age are less likely to develop separation anxiety than pets adopted from shelters. However, any pet can develop an overly-dependent bond with their owner, so preventive training should still occur.

Condition pets to being alone when young, or, in the case of newly adopted pets, early in the relationship. Establish a consistent routine, and ensure they have adequate mental and physical exercise to create a stress-free environment, and prevent boredom. Meeting your pet’s care needs and building positive associations with being alone will reduce the likelihood of separation anxiety. However, sudden life-altering events may trigger temporary signs. 

Don’t let separation anxiety take control of your pet

Untreated separation anxiety can damage the pet-owner bond. Ignoring the initial warning signs will allow destructive and disruptive behaviors to become ingrained, and difficult to treat. Desperate owners sometimes change their lifestyle to prevent their pet’s destructive habits and accommodate their emotional needs, but such a fix is unhealthy, can lead to frustration and resenting the pet, and is usually only temporary.  

Don’t let separation anxiety control your pet, your home, or your lifestyle. Contact Somerset Animal Hospital to schedule an appointment to address your pet’s behavior concerns.