Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety, also known as isolation distress, is a rather complex topic. In this section we'll talk you through what causes separation anxiety and what you can do to help your dog or cat through it and help them in spending more time alone.

What Is Separation Anxiety?

As complex as it may be, separation anxiety is at least autological (in that it describes itself – or, is what it says on the tin) – someone or something gets feelings of anxiety when separated from someone or something. Essentially, it describes a fear or phobia of either being alone or being separated from a preferred human, caregiver, animal, or other source of comfort.

Perhaps most commonly children can suffer from separation anxiety, as many parents will have discovered when their child began (often quite suddenly) started crying, screaming or panicking when being dropped off at school or nursery for the day. Similarly, adults can suffer from it when away from their partner, child or pet, experiencing anything from a slight worry to overwhelming panic at the thought of being separated from them. But more and more this topic is being discussed in reference to our pets – especially dogs – as another unfortunate side-effect to working and isolating from our homes throughout the pandemic.

We, and other animal rehoming centres, are concerned that after so long indoors and around the house – through no fault of our own – a sudden change to routine will cause unnecessary distress as our pets struggle to adapt to being alone or away from their owners.

In the following pages we have discussed this topic in more detail, to help pet owners understand more about what separation anxiety is to our pets, what causes it, some of the signs and symptoms to watch for, and what a worried pet owner can do about it.


What Is Separation Anxiety in Pets?

As discussed, separation anxiety is a fear or phobia of either being alone or being separated from a preferred human, caregiver, animal, or other source of comfort.

This will probably sound familiar to a lot of pet owners – as many as 40% of dog owners in the UK reported their dog experiencing separation anxiety, according to Petplan’s Pet Census 2018, a number that is expected to rise sharply as a result of the pandemic. Much as many humans will find the eventual return to normal routine quite jarring, our pets may struggle with readaptation too. After a year-and-a-half of having near-continuous human contact, it should come as no surprise that suddenly leaving the house again to visit the office, friends or family will come as quite a shock to our pets now-embedded routines.

However, despite being so common in the UK’s companion animals, many are unaware of what separation anxiety is, what signs to look for, and – especially for those who are faced with a now anxious pet – knowing what to do and where to turn for help.

For many years we’ve seen the unfortunate side of this, when owners have been quite overwhelmed by an animal developing this disorder. We hope that by providing further information on the topic, we can help reassure and support pet owners who are struggling.

Which Animals Can Be Affected By Separation Anxiety?

When discussing separation anxiety and pets, the most commonly spoken about species is dogs – a quick Google search will turn up thousands of results confirming this – however it’s certainly not exclusive to our canine companions.

Many other animals can develop and exhibit signs of separation anxiety, including other common pets such as cats, rabbits and horses. Signs of separation anxiety will of course vary from species-to-species (and in most cases, animal-to-animal) though recurring symptoms may include excessive toileting, destructive behaviours, vocalisation and other signs synonymous with stress.

We would recommend speaking to a behaviourist specialising in the animal of concern, who will give the best advice on signs, symptoms and solutions for that species.

How Can I Tell If My Pet Has Separation Anxiety?

As mentioned earlier, separation anxiety is very complex – there is no simple ‘if-your-pet-is-doing-this-then’ type answer. Signs and symptoms that could indicate separation anxiety could also be indicative of other issues, ailments, stresses, or even simply boredom. Because of this, we would strongly recommend seeking out a reputable trainer or animal behaviourist for further guidance and for advice specifically tailored to your animal and your situation. While we and others can do our best to offer advice, dozens of factors specific to you and your pet could be working in combination, and speaking to an expert will be the best way to manage these.

With that said, there are some common behaviours that could indicate separation anxiety that are worth looking out for, including; toileting indoors; chewing, scratching or destruction of soft furnishings and other household items; and uncharacteristic whining, howling and barking.

What Causes Separation Anxiety in Pets?

Many factors can contribute to a companion animal developing separation anxiety.

Emotional attachment. Perhaps the most obvious, especially considering the pandemic and the lives we’ve been made to live, will be our animals developing a more pronounced emotional attachment than they otherwise would have. Our pets have enjoyed our company and are not in any rush to see us disappear for hours at a time.

You could however, quite rightly, argue that this is no bad thing. Some advice from less-reputable sources places blame squarely on the owner for allowing an environment that encourages an emotional attachment, such as spending extra time with a pet, allowing the dog to sleep on the bed or even simply cuddling the cat. To those, I would question their credibility, as developing an emotional attachment to a companion animal is surely one of the very reasons for having one in the first place.

Routine. Assuming that an emotional attachment is something we would rather nurture than be rid of, we might consider that the change in routine is a bigger and more controllable factor. Like it or not, many of us have been living in a very predictable routine since the beginning of the pandemic, waking, working, eating and sleeping at consistent times throughout the week.

Our pets have probably loved this. Companion animals thrive on routine as they find it comforting and predictable. However, disrupting this – especially suddenly and to a large degree (such as, say, going from being home all day to being in the office for 8-10 hours) – can be very distressing and a common factor in the development of separation anxiety. Some pets may even begin showing signs of anxiety at the early stages of you getting ready to leave, from grabbing your car keys, or even as soon as getting dressed in the morning.

Asking your place of work for some flexibility with working-from-home, or even to consider a dog-friendly office might help, but we appreciate this option won’t be available to all. Instead, we would encourage gradually making small changes to your routine, as soon as possible.

Boredom. Your pet may simply be anxious because they don’t have enough to do or have too much built-up energy. While they can quite quickly (and effectively) make this known to us when we’re home, they’ve no way of expressing their discontent without us around – which could lead to them releasing stress by, say, chewing a hole in a pillow.

We should always view exercise from two sides – physical and mental. Taking a dog out for a walk or run in the morning can be a great way to tire them out physically, but letting them stop to sniff for scent marks can help use some mental energy, too. Playing certain genres of music, including soft rock, classical and reggae has been shown by University of Glasgow to reduce stress in dogs. Offering a vantage point to watch a garden or street can serve as a distraction (though could also provide extra stress to an animal fearful of strangers, loud noises or traffic). Leaving toys and treats available while out of the house will give them something to play with, and enrichment aids such as puzzle feeders or a stuffed KONG can encourage them to use their brain, too. Just be sure not to provide too complex of a puzzle feeder though, as that could lead to…

Frustration. Your pet may simply be frustrated that they’re unable to reach somewhere, do something, or access an area in the home – especially one they would have access to when you’re home. This is where being able to monitor your pet comes in handy.

Other fears. An animal who is already frightened by, for example, the doorbell ringing, car horns in the distance, or the sounds of strangers speaking outside may feel these fears exacerbated when left alone – much like when we watch a scary movie by ourselves and then become hyperaware of even the faintest sound in another room.

History. A pet with a background of abuse or one that has spent time in several homes, and now feels comfortable and safe in your presence, may be feel that security is removed and be haunted by their past when you leave their side.

Unknown. And sometimes it can be all of these things or none of these things. We don’t always know what causes separation anxiety in our pets, much like how we don’t often know how a human develops certain phobias.

It is important to recognise that having separation anxiety (or any other behaviour) doesn’t make them a ‘bad’ pet – nor does it make us a ‘bad’ owner. It is generally a product of an environment, something that can be with an animal from very early in their life and not present until brought out by specific conditions. How we identify, and eventually mitigate these conditions, is a much truer reflection of us as pet owners.

What Can I Do About Separation Anxiety?

Gladly, separation anxiety is a very treatable condition, but it can take a lot of work and dedication. There is no quick fix to relieve anxiety in an animal, but working with your pet to help them find comfort where there once was distress can be an incredibly rewarding experience for you both.

As referenced several times in these articles, we would strongly recommend seeking out the advice of a reputable trainer or animal behaviourist if you’re concerned that your pet is showing signs of separation anxiety. There are also some steps you could start taking now to help identify, address and – hopefully – relieve any anxieties your pet may be feeling.

Monitor for signs of stress. Stress can be difficult to identify already, without the added complication that they may only show these signs when you’re not home. This is where a camera in your house which you can view your pet with can be incredibly useful. Essentially, you’re looking to establish a baseline – how long can you be away for before your pet starts to show signs of stress. With this information, you can start to work on desensitising your pet to the separation.

Set yourself a plan. This is where a trainer or behaviourist will be best to speak to, as after identifying the individual needs of your pet and helping to figure out their tolerance to separation, they will be able to create a plan tailored to you. A plan will help to keep you on track, especially when things seem insurmountable, and give you small goals to work towards – starting with, for example, getting your pet comfortable with you simply walking to the door, working towards you later leaving the house, and eventually heading out for entire evening and beyond.

Take notes. Noticed your dog seemed less stressed when you gave them this toy? Was your cat calmer when they had that for breakfast? When you walked them here in the morning, how’d that affect their energy levels during the day? Be sure to write down any observations as they could be part of a pattern and may prove helpful in the long run. These notes will also be great for reflecting on how far you’ve progressed, especially during any rough patches.

Start making small changes
. Now you know how long your pet is comfortable with you being away for, begin getting them used to that length of time with a view to extending it as they get more comfortable. This will likely involve some trial and error – if an extra fifteen minutes was too much, try for ten next time. You may be able to increase the time apart by sizeable margins, but minute-by-minute changes may also be necessary. Giving yourself breathing room, setting realistic goals, and being consistent will be the keys to success at this stage.

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