Changes to your schedule or frequent events that keep you from home more often may leave your pet confused, sad or anxious, which can cause stress for the entire family. A newly adopted pet may be especially confused by an abrupt change if their routine has already been established.
Today it is estimated that of the nearly 90 million dogs in the country, 20 to 40 percent who are taken to veterinary behavior specialists are there because their owners are looking to treat dog separation anxiety.
Signs of Separation Anxiety in Dogs
If your pet has separation anxiety, you may begin to notice some behavioral changes. Purina Chief Veterinary Officer Dr. Kurt Venator DVM, PhD says to watch for the following signs:
- Improper urination or defecation in the house not associated with puppy training
- Unwarranted barking or howling
- Excessive chewing or other destructive behavior in the home
“Sometimes, it can be difficult to distinguish separation anxiety from boredom or attention-seeking,” adds Purina pet behavior scientist Dr. Ragen McGowan, PhD. “So, you may need to ask your neighbors if they hear your pets vocalizing after the family leaves the house for the day, set up pet cams in the house, or keep a log of when you come home to messes.”
Tips to Help Address Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Create a Routine
Pets benefit from routines just as much as their human family members. Leaving and returning at the same time every day helps your four-legged friend adjust to the changes they’re experiencing and reduce your dog or cat’s separation anxiety.
“It is important to create a routine for your pet around when you are leaving as well,” says Dr. McGowan. “No drawn-out goodbyes are necessary. Once everyone is ready to leave and is headed out the door, give your pet something to occupy his time—like a chew toy stuffed with treats—and then just walk out the door,” she suggests.
Taking your dog for a walk or playing an interactive game before you leave for the day is another calming strategy. After exercise, pets are usually ready for a nap, which creates the perfect segue for you to exit.
Encourage Separation at Home
Depending on your pet’s personality, you may need to take measures to create separation to avoid your pet developing separation anxiety later on.
“It is important for your pet to learn that it is okay to be alone sometimes. So, it is good to practice these by creating artificial separation even when you are actually home,” explains Dr. McGowan.
For some pets, a closed door can send this message, while others may need to be reintroduced to their crates or encouraged to spend time in a calm, quiet part of the house for part of the day.
Schedule Time for Play & Exercise
Schedule specific playtimes for your dog each day. “This is where appropriate treating comes into play. You want to reward the good behaviors. A treat here or there [during play time], along with verbal praise, can go a long way,” says Dr. Venator.
Building out a routine for your pet with predictable cues will help them learn to expect when certain activities will occur. This predictability helps to ease the stress that comes when life is unpredictable.
“It is also important to schedule some one-on-one calm time with your pet, where family members sit with and pet their dogs. This can help increase the bond they have and positively reward calm behavior,” adds Dr. McGowan.
Provide Background Noise
People who turn the TV on for their dogs when they leave the house are sometimes considered “crazy pet parents,” but it’s good advice for treating dog separation anxiety.
Playing music, leaving the TV on and even turning on an audiobook or podcast can provide them with some engagement and distraction. Plus, the sound of other human voices can make pets feel less alone.
“There are even dedicated pet channels like DOGTV available now with pet-centric noises or images to help keep our dogs entertained,” adds Dr. McGowan.
Try Stimulating Pet Puzzles & Games
Puzzle feeders are a great way to reduce anxiety and keep your pet mentally stimulated. Pour half of their recommended daily amount of food into the puzzle feeder each morning and then refill each evening. Your pet will spend the day busy and engaged, which can ease feelings of anxiety.
Other options are to hide small portions of dog food and leave them in bowls around the house.
“Measure out the amount you want to feed every day and then divide it into smaller portions hidden around the house,” says Purina feeding behavior scientist Dr. Annie Valuska, PhD. This hide-and-seek game keeps them busy and active throughout the day.
“Many pet owners understand the importance of physical exercise for their pets, but mental exercise is just as important. The more we can do to keep our pets’ minds active, the better,” explains Dr. McGowan.
Remain Calm & Confident
“Keep in mind that our pets are great at reading our emotions and feed off our energy and body language,” says Dr. McGowan. “So, it is important to stay calm and confident around goodbyes with your pet.”
If you struggle with this, try saying goodbye with lots of petting and praise as much as 10 to 20 minutes before you leave. Then, when the time comes to leave, you can go without feeling bad, because you’ve already said goodbye.
If you have to leave suddenly and don’t have time for a walk or to create a game for them to play while you’re away, give them a treat as you walk out the door to develop a positive association with you leaving.
Following these tips can ease your cat’s or dog’s separation anxiety symptoms and make them feel more comfortable being home alone. Get more training tips from our experts on our Pet Expertise page.