An upcoming British TV documentary found something shocking when filming dogs at home while their owners were out — many dogs pace, howl, bark and even harm themselves while they wait for their owners to return.
When most people talk about maintaining a healthy work-life balance, they’re probably thinking of spending more time with their spouse or kids. But for a pet with separation anxiety, the time you spend at work during the day can cause stress, anxiety and even depression. This is especially true for people who work long or irregular hours.
It makes sense when you think about it: a dog or cat doesn’t understand why you’re leaving the house or when you’re going to return. While some animals are naturally more independent and may handle being left alone well, others panic. They become anxious, tearing up the house or leaving smelly “presents” on the floor. Some animals will even try to escape when separated from their pet-parents, which can put them at risk of being stolen, injured or killed.
Other pets simply suffer silently, exhibiting “quiet” signs of stress without becoming loud or destructive. If your pet follows you from room to room when you’re at home, acts upset or depressed when you get ready to leave the house, or displays unusually frantic greeting behaviors when you return, there may be a problem.
Even pets that haven’t previously had issues with being left alone can develop separation anxiety after a big life change. Moving house can be hard on a pet, and so can new family members. If you have an erratic work schedule or any major changes to your routine, this can also stress an animal out. The loss of a family member, either due to death or just moving away, can also trigger behavioral problems in your pet.
So what should you do if your dog or cat is showing signs of separation anxiety? The answer isn’t to give them away or take them to a shelter in the hopes that the find a family with a more accommodating schedule — in fact, this will likely make the pet’s existing issues worse. Instead, there are a variety of ways to gradually train your pet to function better when you’re away.
Animals with a mild case of separation anxiety can be soothed by leaving special treats or toys with them when you leave the house, and putting them away when you return. This way, the dog or cat will learn that there are some perks to being left alone. You can also leave them with a t-shirt or other item that has your scent on it.
For more serious cases of separation anxiety, it gets a little bit trickier. First practice behaviors that you usually do before leaving the house a few times a day — like picking up your keys or putting on your coat — but don’t actually leave the house. This way your pet won’t associate those actions with panic.
Then you can start by leaving the pet alone for short periods of time — for some pets this can be as simple and forbidding them to follow you into the bathroom or kitchen. The idea is to engage in activities in the home outside of the view of your pet. This may be easier to do with dogs because you can train them to “stay” rather than closing doors on them. After that, you can begin leaving your pet alone for small amounts of time and gradually increase the length of time that you’re gone.
Not all pets will respond well to your attempts to train them, and sometimes these behavior problems are due to a medical issue, so if your pet is showing any signs of being depressed, consult your veterinarian. Some medications exist to help dogs and cats with anxiety and depression when training measures fail.
Photo credit: Martin Cathrae via Flickr