Why Your Pet Is Experiencing Separation Anxiety (and How to Alleviate It)

People are not the only ones who feel separation anxiety; pets can also experience it, though they may express it in a different way than what you’re used to. Dogs that experience separation anxiety can be destructive when left alone, or they can express their distress by making a mess in your home even if they’ve already been housetrained.

How Does Separation Anxiety Manifest in Pets?

Pets can express their distress due to being left alone by their humans in different ways. Dogs can make noises by barking and howling, pacing around the room, urinating and defecating indoors, or destroying items in the home by digging and chewing. They may even struggle so hard to escape from their feelings of separation anxiety that they end up injuring themselves in the process.

It’s not clear why pets experience separation anxiety. However, it’s been observed that pets adopted from shelters are prone to displaying symptoms of distress upon being left alone, at least when compared to pets that have been owned by a single family all their lives.

This supports some theories that pets who have experienced the loss of their family before are likely to exhibit symptoms of separation anxiety. At the same time, though, the disorder can also be triggered by other changes, such as moving houses, welcoming a new family member, or changing one’s schedule. 

What Do You Do When Your Pet Has Separation Anxiety? 

It can be distressing to see your pet suffer from separation anxiety. However, the disorder can be managed by proper conditioning. There are also tools that you can use to help calm your pet, such as custom branded dog bandanas that can work as anti-anxiety wraps in a pinch. Just like other conditions, separation anxiety in pets can be mild, moderate, or severe. Here are some of the things that you can do to help your pet deal with temporary separations and alone time in a healthier manner:

Mild Separation Anxiety

Counterconditioning, or the process of turning a pet’s unwanted response to a stimulus into a desirable one by using positive reinforcement, can work with mild cases of separation anxiety. In this case, you can establish habits that will help your pet associate you leaving them alone as a positive thing. 

This can be done by providing your pet with a tasty snack or an engaging toy every time you walk out the door. Perhaps you can leave a chew toy that’s been stuffed with your pet’s favorite snack before stepping outside for a short while. A snack that can last until you come back is a good choice, such as frozen cheese, banana, or kibble. Once you return, take away the snack or toy and make sure that your pet can only get these rewards when you leave.

In time, this conditioning program can help your pets become more used to being alone and associate the experience as a positive thing or at least something that they shouldn’t be stressed about.

More Severe Cases of Separation Anxiety

Unfortunately, it would be difficult to use the same technique with pets that suffer moderate to severe separation anxiety, as they will likely ignore the snack as soon as you are out of sight. To help your pet become less sensitive about being left alone, you’ll need to employ a more personalized counterconditioning program and likely the assistance of a professional trainer. 

After all, every pet is different. What can work for one dog may not change a thing for another dog of the same breed, age, or background. To design a program that can yield positive results, you can get in touch with an animal behavior therapist, veterinary behaviorist, or professional dog trainer with the right credentials.

During the desensitization process, your pet mustn’t be fully exposed to the things that they fear the most—that is, your absence for extended periods. While the program is ongoing, make it a point to hire a sitter or enroll your dog in a doggy daycare program so that the counterconditioning sessions can be fully effective. 

What Other Options Do You Have?

While getting professional help for treating moderate to severe anxiety is your best option, it’s still possible to help your dog in your own way.

For one, you can help your pet deal with nervous or excessive energy by playing with them, organizing playdates with other pets, training them to keep them mentally engaged, or enrolling them in a class or agility program. You can also consult your veterinarian to see if there are medications that your dog can use to help speed up the counterconditioning program. 

Whatever you do though, don’t punish your pet because they feel distressed. Remember, you’re in the same team and the two of you—with the assistance of a professional trainer, if needed—can get through this tough challenge together.