How to cope with pet separation anxiety

·8-min read
<p>Dogs can benefit from having their own space where they feel safe</p>

Dogs can benefit from having their own space where they feel safe

As lockdown lifts and we reclaim our pre-pandemic lives, we may require a refresh of our social skills before re-entering ‘normal’ life, whether that’s on the Tube, at work, in the shops or in a restaurant.

But what about our pets? How will they cope with challenges they may not have encountered for months or, for younger animals, may never have experienced?

This is a worrying issue. After growing used to having us around all day, experts are warning of a potential wave of animal separation-related anxiety – and that could cause problems for pets and owners alike.

Home alone

According to the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association, 3.2 million households in the UK have acquired a pet since the start of the pandemic. As owners go back to work, their four-legged friends will be, possibly for the first time, home alone. That will place them in a stressful situation, and animals under stress can react in a number of negative ways.

Dr Tammie King, pet behaviourist at Mars Petcare, says awareness of what to expect is key: “You may not think it’s going to be an issue if your pet was left alone pre the lockdown and handled it smoothly. However, bear in mind that they have become used to a new normal and may need to be re-familiarised to a routine when you go back in to work.

“It’s particularly challenging if the dog or cat was adopted during lockdown and has never experienced any extended amount of time away from their owners. Dogs especially are a social species, so most will have really enjoyed that interaction and having you around.”

Stress factor

Dog owner Rachel Peart from Woolwich says adopted Cadbury, a Pomeranian/Shih Tzu mix in November 2019 when he was just eight weeks old: “I had a busy life pre-Covid and, although he was initially anxious, eventually he managed to be alone eight hours a day. However, since lockdown, that’s all changed.

Cadbury has shown signs of stressRachel Peart
Cadbury has shown signs of stressRachel Peart

“Sometimes just going to the shop for dinner becomes a nightmare. I worry about him being very vocal and disturbing my neighbours and also being destructive. I notice that sometimes when I leave, he has little accidents which he would never usually have. I hope to return to work but the worry stresses me out.”

And she’s not alone.

Banfield Pet Hospital’s recent survey shows that 73% of pet owners are concerned about going back to the office and spending time away from their pets, with 59% worried their dog or cat may suffer from separation anxiety once their new work schedule begins.

And naturally, as Rachel says, it’s not just the animals who are stressing out.

Natasha Davies, a dental hygienist from south-east London, adopted one-year old Griff, a Cardigan Corgi, close to the start of the Covid-19 crisis. She says: “All dental practices were ordered to close at the start, two weeks after we first got Griff. I was out of work for eight months and have now slowly returned back to work.

“Griff’s separation anxiety isn’t too bad, we send him to day care or to my mum’s, so he’s always around people and other dogs. But I’m having a really hard time with it. In fact, it’s me that gets the separation anxiety!”

Griff’s owner Natasha is feeling anxiousNatasha Davies
Griff’s owner Natasha is feeling anxiousNatasha Davies

Return to normality

Alexandra Khan, a London-based psychotherapist who specialises in anxiety, says: “This is a period of uncertainty for everyone, and going back to work is a big change, so yes, this kind of separation could be difficult for pet owners as well. They have also got used to a certain routine at home of care and companionship, and that is now interrupted.

“Although going back into work and seeing more people socially is a return to normality, there might well be some concern and worry as to how their beloved pet is coping on their own without them.”

Dr King at Mars Petcare adds: “Pets can suffer from separation anxiety at any time, but this enforced lockdown is likely to make it a more common problem.

“Common issues reported by dog owners include those related to fear, aggression, anxiety, excessive vocalisations, and house soiling. It’s important to highlight that pets are not doing so out of spite. Behaviour is simply a response to a stimulus or situation. And in hopefully reassuring news, it means behaviour can be modified.”

Things to watch out for (in both dogs and cats) that may indicate anxiety include:

· changes in eating habits

· unsettled behaviour that begin when you get prepare to leave home (getting your coat on, grabbing your keys)

· inappropriate toileting

· destructiveness

· pacing, panting, shaking or shivering

· increased vocalisations (barking, whining, mewling).

Six tips to help your pet get through the transition:

Dr King shares her strategy for easing pet separation anxiety:

Create a safe space and ease into it

Designate a safe and comfortable area for your pet such as a crate or a secure room (kitchen or utility). This should be a fun place with a bed, toys and water. Regularly take your pet here to teach them it is a good place to be. Feeding meals in this area helps build positive associations.

Enclose your pet in this safe place with a treat while you briefly go to another room. Return and release your pet without making a fuss. Repeat, and gradually increase the time you are away in small increments. Your pet should learn that when you leave, good things will happen (they get a treat). As before, slowly build up the time you are away as you start leaving the house.

Leave and arrive quietly

Always keep your hellos and goodbyes low key. When leaving and homecoming rituals involve minimal fuss, it helps your dog to understand that your absence isn’t anything to worry about. Prolonged goodbyes may increase their anxiety.

While it’s best not to make a big fuss when you first arrive home, it’s important to strike a balance between teaching them how to cope on their own, with giving plenty of attention and affection when you’re together.

Develop a consistent, predictable routine

If you’re in lockdown or working from home more than usual, it’s tempting to enjoy lots of time with your pet. But establishing a routine that more closely resembles pre-lockdown life, or what your routine is likely to be when restrictions relax, is more beneficial for your dog.

A consistent routine enables your dog to predict what will happen next and goes a long way to reducing their stress levels.

Make sure they stay active

Before your pet has some time alone, make sure they’ve had enough exercise – especially for dogs. If they’re a little tired, then they’re more likely to have a nap while you’re away or at least find it easier to relax.

Leave your scent

When you leave your pet, make sure they have a quiet comfortable place to rest with a special treat or toy. You could also leave a blanket or piece of clothing carrying your scent with them, as this may help to comfort them.

Leave a TV or radio on

If you leave a TV or radio on or play some music while you’re away, this can also help to soothe your pet. It will make the house feel less quiet in your absence.

Dr King also cautions against yelling at or admonishing an anxious pet, as it will only make them more afraid. She also suggests installing an in-home camera as it may help you to monitor and check in on how your pet is doing during the day.

Finally, if things do break down, there is support out there. Reach out to your local veterinarian or the Association of Pet Behaviour Councils for a list of qualified dog behaviourists who can help and provide tailored advice.

Damage cover

One option for pet owners concerned about how their pet might react to being alone, and particularly the damage they might cause if they are distressed, is to consider adding accidental damage insurance to their home contents policy. This will come at an extra cost, and there may be exclusions, such as soiling.

Pet insurance will likely not cover damage to your own property caused by your pet, but you will normally be covered if your pet damages someone else’s belongings or causes injury.

According to insurer LV= General Insurance, the number of accidental damage claims caused by animals fell by 18% in the past year. It says the decrease is likely due to the number of owners working from home and being able to spend more time with their pets. But it points to research by The Kennel Club found that one in 10 owners who bought a dog during lockdown are worried about whether they can care for them as restrictions ease.

The RSPCA has also raised concerns that some people may have bought a pet on impulse without considering how their lifestyle might change after the pandemic.

As part of its pet insurance policy, LV= offers a ‘virtual vet’ appointment service through FirstVet. The insurer says demand in London has soared as new owners have got to grips with their new-found pet obsession: in 2020 there were 93 consolations up to 30 April in the capital, but for the same period in 2021 the number was 159.

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