It’s that time of year – back to school! While the kids are heading back and you may be relieved, your pets may be getting more amped up about the time they’ll be alone now that summer is over. Yes, we’re talking about separation anxiety. When you think about it, they’ve potentially had family at home or been on vacation with you for an extended period of time for the past few months, or perhaps they’re a young puppy or kitten and this could be their first time alone. Either way, it’s a potential recipe for disaster or the breaking of the bond you have.
Separation anxiety is a horrible condition (believe me, I’ve dealt with it personally with my own pets). It can lead to destruction of things in the home – couches, doors, floors, and more. Additionally, the behavioural aspect can lead to complaints from neighbours, surrendering your pet, or in the worst cases, euthanasia. So what can we do to help?
Most dogs will pick on up a steady routine or changes to that said routine. This is a complicated area because they may be used to variable feeding, walking, or playing times over the summer, or for those of us who don’t get summers off they are used to the morning routine of getting up, prepping for work (showering, picking up your keys, etc.) and leaving the house to be gone for several hours. Depending on your situation, something may need to change. For pets not used to a routine, you may need to start developing that schedule or those everyday tasks that might alert them you are leaving – backpacks, lunch bags, picking up your keys, et cetera, and just get those things ready but don’t go anywhere (get things ready even on weekends) so they aren’t as triggered when you do leave. For those pets who are used that routine already and are having separation issues, we need a different approach to help them adjust. You may do all the same things, but keep your time away short to start on days that you don’t have to leave the house. It might just be 2 minutes to take the trash out or 5 minutes to change the laundry over where your pet can’t follow you. Gradually increase the times you’re away. Regardless, once you come home, don’t make a fuss over the pets as it just gets them more excitable and they may come to expect a certain level of attention that just makes them clamor for you more when you aren’t home.
It’s important for these anxious pets to still get enough exercise and attention to meet their basic emotional needs. Though your schedule may be changing, make sure they get a few daily walks, toss the toy for them, and give them those belly rubs (dogs) or ear scratches (cats). They may have a favourite toy or treat that you can also use to interact with them or let them have self-directed play. If they’ve got something especially high value to them (peanut butter stuffed toys, catnip, that one amazing toy), you might want to reserve that so they can be distracted by something they love (just as much as you!) when you leave.
There can be some misconception about crates for dogs. Some people view it as cruel or sad to have a dog in a crate while they are gone. But crates can be a safe space for many dogs, similar to a large carrier for our cat friends. You can get your pet used to a crate or carrier by leaving the door open or off, feeding them in it, and saving those high value treats or toys for times when they are in the safe space. This makes it a happy place, and not a punishment.
What about cats? Cats can be harder to note these things in and they won’t get noise complaints from your neighbours either. You may still see some furniture destruction, but the most likely noted problem could be a change in urinary behaviours. Cat behaviour is a whole different situation we can address at a later time.
So as you head back into that fall schedule and the seasons change, don’t forget about your cat and dog family members. Try to help them maintain some normalcy, but also work to help them adjust and become more well-rounded in a positive manner. Anything is possible with some work and determination!
Dr. Ryan Llera is a small animal veterinarian at the Kingston Veterinary Clinic. Though originally from Florida, he married a Canadian (who is also a vet!) and they share their home with two cats, two dogs, two horses, and a rabbit. Dr. Llera also contributes writing to various other animal and veterinary related blogs. You can find more of his writing at www.DRRYANLLERA.com, or see what else he is up to on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.
If there’s something you’ve often wondered or have questions about, let us know by email at [email protected].
*Please note that specific medical questions about your pet cannot be addressed and you should speak with your personal veterinarian. Disclaimer: All columns are personally written and my opinion and may not necessarily reflect those of current or former employers.