Worried About Your Pet's Separation Anxiety When You Go Back to School? Here's What to Do
If you've been schooling from home ever since March of 2020, and you're going back to the classroom for the first time this fall, chances are that it's going to feel pretty different.
If you have a pet, even more so. Many of us have been home with them basically 24/7 since we've been ordered to stay at home, and going back to school may be stressful for both us and them. In fact, many pets might not deal well with the fact that you won't be around all of the time. So what can we do in anticipation of this separation anxiety?
We were curious, so we reached out to an expert to find out. M. Leanne Lilly is a Dutch vet specialist and a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, so she knows a thing or two about pets—and she gave us answers to our biggest questions.
Sweety High: What causes separation anxiety in pets?
M. Leanne Lilly That's a great question, and to be honest, something we are still evaluating, but like most things in behavior it's likely a complicated interplay between genetics, early life experiences and learning. Dogs who have been rehomed through a shelter or rescue are predisposed to it, and dogs purchased from pet stores are more likely to have it than those purchased directly from professional breeders. Cats are most likely to hide, making them especially hard to recognize. These pets don't feel safe and relaxed when home alone or separated from their attachment figure. It is highly associated with noise fears—if a frightening noise happens when home alone, the fear of the noise can get associated with being alone.
SH: Can this be worsened by spending a lot of time with them and then suddenly having to go back to work or school? Why?
MLL: It seems like for some pets, yes. Changes in the household including schedule (even if the amount of time stays the same), do seem to be a predisposing factor in at least one study. It's possible that some pets are generally anxious and the change is simply another stressor; it's also possible that spending a lot of time together and not practicing feeling safe separated sets up some pets to fear being alone. Just like many humans fear things we don't have a lot of experience with.
SH: What are some ways to ease into this process with your pet and make it less stressful for them?
MLL: Practicing independence exercises where your pet is rewarded for being separated from you in a relaxed setting can help. Approximating the change from work from home to work at the office can be really helpful if your pup doesn't already mind your trips to the grocery store. For example, if you typically will be walking out the door for the office at 8 a.m., start with doing little things like walking to the mailbox and back at 8 a.m., then walking around the block or walking away and being absent for increasing periods. You have to be really careful doing this with a pet who has no previous history of trouble being home alone. For pets who have already had some issue with this, do not start a behavior modification program without consulting with a professional—either a certified positive reinforcement trainer, your veterinarian or a behavior consulting service like Dutch or a DACVB.
For pets who are already anxious about separation, graduated departures can actually make things worse, not better. For many pets, medications or well-researched veterinary supplements or pheromones can be helpful or even necessary in teaching them it's safe to be home alone. These work by reducing panic and improving learning—pets can't learn they are safe while panicking. If a pet with separation anxiety can't stay with someone else while you go to work, it needs to be not panicking while home alone, and behavior modification to teach that can take months.
SH: What are some of the healthiest ways we can keep pets occupied while we're away?
MLL: Ideally, a pet will be comfortable eating, drinking and resting while home alone. Food toys are great for keeping pets occupied in a positive way with two caveats. First, subtract their home-alone calories from their food dish and second, you need to test them first with supervision to make sure they are safe for your specific pet. Some dogs can in fact shred heavy-duty Kongs and some will eat the pieces leading to a risk of an obstruction, so you need to know that sort of thing first. If you're concerned if a food item is safe to leave with your dog or cat when home alone, ask your vet.
SH: Is there anything else you'd like to add on the topic?
MLL: It is absolutely critical that you never punish, reprimand or discipline a pet for something that they did while you are not home, for two reasons. One is that the association with their behavior and a consequence has to be within one to three seconds of the behavior to teach them anything, so it won't work. The other is that those types of interventions can actually make fear and anxiety worse, which will then increase the very behavior you are trying to stop.
Set your pets up for success—put away the trash and close them out of rooms with fragile items. Do not automatically crate your dog because it has started showing behavior problems when left home alone. This may make things worse, and dogs have seriously injured themselves escaping crates. If you are tempted to or have had to continue to get heavier, stiffer crates, using locks or zip ties to keep the crate closed, that is a sign your dog is seriously worried and needs veterinary intervention.
Video your pets when home alone. That is the best way to know what's going on and allows you and your care team to assess how your pet is doing much more effectively than whether or not there was urine, feces or drool, or destruction. Lastly, treat rapidly and intensely by seeking care early. This is not something pets improve on over time on their own.
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