How to Relieve Your Pet’s Separation Anxiety During the Holidays
The holidays are festive for humans, but for animals they can be full of anxiety. Make sure to manage your pet's needs as well—here's valuable insight from an animal behavior expert.
What exactly is separation anxiety in animals, and is it common?
If you have a pet, you have a bond like no other—just check out all the benefits of having a pet. But you have to think of their needs too, and anytime pets are separated from the person they're most bonded to, they're likely to experience anxiety, explains Jennifer Garrepy, an animal behavior consultant and energy healer.
Separation anxiety is not to be taken lightly, explains Garrepy: "It is a very serious disorder characterized by extreme emotional and behavioral reactions. It can be compared to panic disorder in humans." And doesn't only happen to dogs. Though less frequent, other species like cats, parrots, and mice, can suffer from the disorder.
"At its most extreme, it can result in death," warns Garrepy. "For example, dogs will run through glass windows, jump off ledges, or run away looking for you and get hit by a car." Which is why taking precautions can make all the difference.
Common signs of separation anxiety
If you've been wondering why your pup has been suddenly chewing the furniture, a habit that seemed to come out of nowhere, you should consider separation anxiety as the culprit—or one of these 9 other potential causes of anxiety in pets. According to Garrepy, the most common signs include:
Destructive behavior—clawing at the door, chewing through window screens, chewing up the couch, gnawing on the crate
Constant barking, meowing, howling
Pooping or peeing in the house (dogs) or outside the litter box (cats)
Panting and salivating
Refusing to eat or drink when left alone
Signs that are more subtle
Knowing the most common signs can surely help you take a step back and reevaluate what is causing your pet's anxiety, but sometimes there are signs that seem normal, like your cat throwing up a fur ball or your dog panting. But when it happens excessively, something's up. Get familiar with the 50 things pets would tell you if they could talk because their actions are the only way they can communicate with you.
Be aware of the lesser known signs that your animal is experiencing separation anxiety:
Pacing, panting, hiding, jumping and frenetically moving about while you're gone
Insisting on being with the owner at all times, following them from room to room
Excessive grooming which can show up as bald spots (cats)
"When you get ready to leave, a cat may try to get between the owner and the door or may hide, and when you return, the cat may show an abnormally enthusiastic greeting," notes Garrepy.
Dealing with a mild case of separation anxiety
Garrepy recommends three important things for helping your pet who just has a bit of separation anxiety:
Try counterconditioning, in which you associate a bad thing (which in this case is your leaving), with something they enjoy, like a treat. "Over time, your animal will learn that what he feared actually leads to good things," says Garrepy. "Try a puzzle toy with food inside that will take a good 20-30 minutes to eat."
A little background noise might help as well—try leaving the TV or stereo on. Pick a mellow station: "Animals are more attuned to energy than humans. Movie violence or tabloid talk shows with their angry guests can be agitating." If you go with music, you can find compilations created specifically to calm pets, whether it be a dog, cat, or bird. Check out YouTube or iTunes to find options.
Managing a moderate case
If treats, music, or the TV won't do the trick, Garrepy recommends desensitizing your pet to your leaving. "You do this by disassociating your normal signs of leaving from your actual leaving," she says. "Pick up your car keys, then sit on the couch to watch TV. Put on your coat then go wash the dishes."
Essentially, you want to keep your coming and going low-key. By leaving the house calmly and confidently, you help your pet realize that leaving is normal—you might do the same thing with a child anxious about being left at pre-school.
When you come home, try to ignore your pet for the first few minutes—again, you're trying to normalize leaving and returning.
What's the best way to alleviate your pet's moderate to severe case of separation anxiety?
If your animal isn't responding to any of the previously suggested tips, you should consider investing in professional help of a trainer or an energy healer like Garrepy (you can learn more at her website, Thrive Energy Healing). Though it may give you anxiety to ask for help from someone who doesn't even know your pet, rest assured that trained professionals should be warm and compassionate with a passion for animals and their people.
What to know about pet boarding facilities
If your pet suffers from separation anxiety, your best bet is to have a trusted friend stay at your house to watch them while you travel. If that's not an option, having your animal stay at a trusted friend's house is the next best bet. Your third choice is a pet-boarding facility—and that can be a good option for dogs, notes Garrepy. "Cats are more dependent on having a set routine, so I'd avoid taking them away from home whenever possible. When choosing a facility, get referrals from your friends and neighbors if possible. Look online to check out their reviews. Visit the facility in advance to check it out. Better yet, if the facility is also a dog daycare, have your dog spend the day there a couple of times before you leave, so they are used to the place and you see whether you and they both like it."
Garrepy suggests opting for a boarding facility with cameras so you can check up on them and how the staff interacts with the animals. "For dogs, I'm also a fan of cage-free boarding."
If possible, maintain your pet's routine
"Animals generally thrive on routine, just like many of us," explains Garrepy. "Cats especially. Like children, animals do better when they can predict what will happen when; it's comforting."
With this in mind, be sure that if you take your animal to a facility, you take plenty of their own food, too. An old T-shirt that smells like you is also a good idea. New food, for instance, can lead to digestive upset.
Speaking of food, if you do have your dog or cat by your side during the holidays, be sure to know the foods that are toxic to them!
Should you ever resort to anti-anxiety medication?
Though there are anti-anxiety medications on the market to help your pet chill out, Garrepy suggests first trying all the possible natural, drug-free options first. "Only use anti-anxiety medications as a last resort," she says. "Certainly, if nothing else works, it's better to use the meds than to have your pet suffer, but it's never the first option I'd recommend."
"Pets want to please you and, when they don't, it's often because their emotional and energetic system is off-kilter," explains Garrepy. Working with them, and not just resorting to medication, can help totally alleviate the issue.
What if I have separation anxiety from my pet?
Just like animals fear your departure, your own thoughts can spiral. Will they be lonely? Will the person taking care of them remember to take them on lots of walks, and give them lots of cuddles?
"It's critical to know you are leaving your beloved pet in good hands," says Garrepy. "You want to have complete trust in the person or company who will be taking care of your animal. I find that asking my pets' caregivers to text me every day with a photo of them and an update on how they're doing brings me peace of mind. Seeing them on the caregiver's lap or out for a walk makes me smile."
A good idea is to give the caregiver of your animal an emergency contact if you think there's a chance you can't be reached at some point. Leaving the vet's name and address is a great idea too. Next, find out the 50 things your veterinarian wish they could tell you.