Separation Anxiety and PetsPublished September 8, 2008
Now that the summer is over, with school and work schedules back in full swing, many pet owners find it difficult to arrange sufficient quality time to spend with their beloved “fur kids”. Our pets dearly look up to us, and they value our company very deeply. They may not understand why they are being left alone for long periods, and some pets can become anxious. Dogs who develop separation anxiety can demonstrate destructive behaviors; chewing on furniture, barking constantly, pace, ruin plants and scratch at doors and windows. Often these anxious dogs whine loudly, which of course is highly disturbing to neighbors. Dogs are pack animals, so most of them long to be in the presence of their companion humans all the time. After all, we are part of their pack, and our presence is necessary. Depending on the breed, most adult dogs over the age of twelve to sixteen months, can do well being left alone for 8 hours or more, providing they have access to an area for elimination. Doing some research about your dog breed's characteristic is helpful in assessing any behavior problems. Some dogs become bored and miss their humans, but they do not succumb to separation anxiety. Dogs that are affected however will become visibly anxious as we prepare leave. As we approach the door to depart, the dog may attempt to follow us out of the house. Once the door has closed behind us, we may even hear them scratching and whining. Some dogs who have experienced a traumatic event, a burglary, a thunderstorm or earthquake or fire, or who have been placed in several homes, may be fearful that this event may recur without our being there to protect them. Of course, not all misbehavior is due to separation anxiety. Some high-spirited dogs, may rummage destructively through the house, like a young child left on its own. This is a training issue, which needs to be addressed differently. A happy dog who is thrilled to have free rein to cavort and play freely, will appear relaxed and happy, while the dog with separation anxiety will appear nervous and perhaps even frantic. Cats on the other hand, generally do not howl or whine when they are anxious about being alone. Separation anxiety in either species may be caused by being overly dependent on others, and having low self-confidence. Oriental breeds, such as Siamese, Oriental Shorthairs and Burmese may more genetically pre-disposed to separation anxiety than other breeds whose temperaments are not as sensitive. Additionally, kittens that were weaned too early, orphaned kittens and kittens purchased in pet-stores are also more susceptible to separation anxiety. Symptoms of separation anxiety in cats range from sulking, pacing, excessive meowing and refusing to eat when left alone for long periods. Some cats will follow us from room to room, as we prepare to leave, vocalizing their distress. One of the more common expressions of separation anxiety is the highly frustrating one of sudden inappropriate elimination which may take the form of urine spraying to mark their territory and urinating on clothing, bed sheets and other personal affects of their owner. Some cats leave fecal markings deposited around the house as well. These behaviors are strong signals communicated to owners that their cat is overly anxious when left alone. Some cats engage in the displacement behavior of compulsive self-grooming. If left untreated, the cat may continue this "habit" even in the presence of the owner. This can sometimes escalate to self-mutilative behavior, which can lead to open sores that need veterinary intervention. Providing your cat with an enriched environment in which to hang out may be very helpful. A high perch cat-tree near a window gives the cat a place to look out on the world and enjoy the scenery and some interactive toys left in strategic places gives them the opportunity to "hunt" to relieve boredom and stress. I also leave my radio on for my cats, tuned to a public radio station with music and talk shows, which they seem to enjoy. It is essential, however, not to dismiss these untoward behaviors as simply separation anxiety. These behaviors may also be the sign of a developing medical condition, which needs to be addressed immediately by your veterinarian. Once medical conditions are ruled out, your veterinarian may prescribe medications to help alleviate the stress your pets experience when alone. There are some excellent drugs available now which are quite helpful. Your veterinarian may also suggest that you consult with an animal behaviorist as well. With patience and consistency, we can help our pets to be more comfortable and to feel safer when we are away. Taking swift, appropriate action is the key to success. Do your pets become anxious when you are away? Leave a comment and share your experiences and coping suggestions.
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