How to Help Anxious Pets Learn to Stay Home Alone
Come late summer every year, dog behaviorist and trainer Malena DeMartini sees an uptick in calls for help with pups suffering from separation anxiety. “Back to school is a common time for anxiety in pets, because kids have been around all summer and now there’s a big change in the family’s schedule,” says DeMartini, author of Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs.
“Cats can go through this as well,” adds Pam Johnson-Bennett, certified cat behavior consultant and author of CatWise: America’s Favorite Cat Expert Answers Your Cat Behavior Questions. Despite the popular image of the solitary, aloof cat, she notes, felines are social animals with strong bonds to their people. Whether it’s your kitty or pup that’s in distress, here’s how you can help them adjust to being alone.
Understand the anxiety
We’ve all heard about a needy puppy or kitten that hates being left alone, but pets can develop separation anxiety at any age. Changes in routine or environment are the most common triggers—everything from a new job or new child to an older child leaving home for college. The signs of separation anxiety can be subtle—as simple as a dog or cat that’s restless as you get ready to leave.
More often, though, it’s destructive behavior that leads owners to seek help. Dogs might bark nonstop and destroy furniture. Cats might skip the litter box in favor of an owner’s bed or clothing. “It’s easy to misread this behavior as spite,” says Johnson-Bennett. “But it’s really a way for your cat to self-soothe by mixing her scent with yours.” DeMartini explains that “separation anxiety is a panic disorder; this is a phobia about being alone.”
The first step in helping your pet is to find out what’s really happening. “Set up a webcam to see how your pet is doing when you’re out,” says DeMartini. While some animals may simply be misbehaving, she says, those with separation anxiety also show obvious signs of stress: pacing, whining, licking their lips, panting, chewing, barking, yowling, drooling, or overgrooming.
Visit the vet
Your pet might have an underlying health issue that’s triggering its anxiety. Older pets could have age-related cognitive changes or vision or hearing loss that make them newly anxious when left alone. Your vet can help diagnose these issues and offer treatments or solutions that ease the stress for your pet.
“The gold standard for working with separation anxiety is desensitization,” says DeMartini. That means training to help a dog or cat learn to ignore triggers, from you picking up your keys to staying out of the house. When working to desensitize your dog or cat, take it slowly, in small increments, ensuring that your pet is fully adjusted to one step before moving on to the next. “If you think you’re going slowly enough, slow it down even more, and that’s probably where you should be,” says DeMartini. If you don’t feel comfortable tackling this on your own, or feel like you need backup, you can seek help from a trainer who specializes in separation anxiety.
Ask about medication
“A veterinary antidepressant can be very helpful,” says DeMartini. “A lot of these dogs and cats are in constant anxiety mode.” Medication can’t replace behavior modification, but it possibly can help calm your pet enough that the training can be more effective.
Don’t distract dogs
Food puzzles and chew toys might seem like a good idea, but at best, they temporarily distract an anxious pup. At worst, DeMartini warns, the toys become associated with being alone and worsen stress. Don’t let these take the place of desensitization training.
But build a cat’s confidence
Anything that inspires your kitty’s natural prey instinct is a confidence builder that helps tame anxiety. “Engage your cat in an interactive play session on a daily basis,” says Johnson-Bennett. Also, enrich your cat’s environment with a cat tree by the window, puzzle feeders, and other toys to encourage her inner lion while you’re away.
Bottom line: Be aware of your pet’s triggers, and be willing to put in the time and training to help.