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 – we have more guidance on this here.
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, as discussed here.
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.