Back to school means schedule changes for everyone, including our family pets. Pets may feel the loss of that extra playtime as days get shorter and we return to work and school schedules which require more effective time management to get everything done! Some pets may act out while others have a fear of being left alone.
Have you ever returned home from work to find that "guilty look" on your dog's face or the counter top "rearranged " by your cat? Has your dog chewed the living room into an unrecognizable mess of fabric and stuffing? Do your neighbors complain about the howling or meowling for hours when your car leaves the driveway? When you enter the door, are you greeted by the a wagging tail and a let's play attitude and an hours-old mess on the kitchen floor?
These types of experiences may indicate that your pet is having trouble while you're gone or what's called separation anxiety. As yourpetsvet we will first try to eliminate medical problems before making your pet a "head case"! Bladder infections, gastrointestinal disorders and some neurological conditions including dementia and senility can play a role in these instances. If your pet is healthy, behavioral lessons and steps for relaxation recommended by your pet's animal health care team can help your pet cope with the stress of not being taken everywhere and not having their constant human companion 24:7:365.
And please note, these problems usually get worse with age. The longer an undesirable behavior is ongoing the harder it is to change that behavior. Most studies suggest that is takes at least 21 days for a new desired behavior to replace an old undesirable behavior. Treatment for separation anxiety does NOT include punishment for destruction. We also take steps not to encourage anxiety. Trying to not reinforce anxiety can be difficult especially as we try to calm a visibly upset pet that all is OK: this action actually unintentionally reinforces the improper behavior. Pets are not spiteful, no matter how it looks or what you think. Spite is a human reaction-not a pet emotion.
So the key to controlling separation anxiety is to train our pets to relax by rewarding them with praise and treats when assuming a relaxed posture. Providing environmental stimulation for cats such as climbing posts, scratching areas, window perches give them something to do in your absence. Food puzzles and automatic feeders can also help in those long hours before you get home to your pets. Also, you can enlist a dog walker or pet sitter to entertain, exercise, and interact with your pet while you're away. Doggie day and play care is another option to vary the routines of your dog to lessen the anxiety: you go to work or school with others, why not let them let them play with others, too?
Try to down play the events leading to your leaving and being left alone. Change the routine, go out another door, put your keys somewhere else, vary your routine and practice; even when you're not actually leaving. Your pets are very aware of your body language: my dog, Buddy (whom I miss very much) was quite aware of which sneakers meant we were going for a walk and which where the ones I wore on my surgery days. My present dog, Mia just wants to go for a walk no matter what shoes I'm wearing! Try to mix up your time and schedules on weekends as well so that the hysteria doesn't escalate when the front door closes on Monday morning. Try, also, to vary the time your pets are left alone. And, yes sometimes we need medications to help control the unwanted pet behaviors and help our pets relax.
Separation anxiety is one of the consequences of our close relationship with our pets. As your veterinarians we can be the partners you need in helping you and your pets deal with this frustrating and stressful condition. We offfer a variety of both traditional and integrative therapies along with environmental enrichment suggestions to help. The end result? A happier pet and a less anxious owner!