Sad dog having separation anxiety and looking out the window

Welfare and Behaviour

7 ways to prevent and manage your pet’s separation anxiety

As many pet owners return their workplace, pets may be at risk of developing separation anxiety, if they have not been taught how to cope on their own.  

Many owners worry about their pets’ separation anxiety, a disorder affecting both pets and their people.  Data shows nearly 30% of dogs exhibit separation-related behaviours. These figures are likely underestimated, as signs occur when the owner is absent.  

There are several factors causing this condition. “The primary cause if often hard to pinpoint”, shares Dr. Alexandra Moesta, Board Certified Veterinary Behaviourist at Royal Canin.  “Sometimes, signs of separation anxiety are brought about by a sudden change to a dog’s environment, like moving to a new house or family, a change to their individual living circumstances, such as spending a lot of time with their human(s) without being left alone, or even the loss of another family pet. Other factors are historical, with animals who have previously suffered from anxiety-related disorders likely to be more susceptible to being affected again.” 

Separation anxiety is also difficult to diagnose. “That’s because the signs, by definition, happen in the owner’s absence. Right now, there is no simple blood test to verify if a dog has an anxiety issue or not.” Waltham research has focused on revealing the mechanisms of dog behaviour problems, which can help improve diagnostic capabilities and provide more effective treatments.  

However, experts agree that prevention is better than a cure. Dr. Tammie King, pet behaviourist at Waltham, and Dr. Alexandra Moesta share what owners can do if they suspect their dogs may be at risk, and how to manage this issue:  

1. Spend regular time apart

Avoid an abrupt transition to spending lots of time away from home. Instead, start with small separations, like closing your pet in a separate room for a short time or leaving to go for a drive. Be sure to start with brief absences and gradually build up the time you are apart. Be mindful of how your pet behaves, and make sure they are relaxed in your absence. 

2. Minimise the fuss

You want to convey to your pet that your absence isn’t a big deal — that they don’t have to worry about being apart and that you aren’t worried either. Don’t sneak out but avoid dramatic or emotional hellos or goodbyes. Make departing and arriving seem natural and not notable. 

3. Monitor for stress and anxiety

As you practice short separations from your pet, consider setting up a camera to watch how they react while you’re gone. Keep an eye out for pacing, barking, whimpering, salivating, destructiveness or other stress-related behaviours. This will help you understand how your dog is coping and whether you can speed up or need to slow down the transition. 

4. Create a safe haven

Make a space in your home where your dog or cat feels safe, comfortable and protected. Leave some tasty treats or a favourite toy when you leave. 

5. Develop a predictable routine

Just like people, pets like consistency. They need to know they can count on their next walk, play time or meal. Establishing a consistent routine — one that you can keep up in the future — will help make the transition easier. Also leave them with something to do when you are away so they have some choice in how they spend their time. Food dispensing toys are great enrichment items and can entertain pets in your absence. 

6. Get some exercise together 

There’s nothing like a fun activity or game before a period of alone time. Exercise can help them expend pent up energy, engage their minds and improve their mood (and yours!) Cats and dogs are naturally more active morning and evening, so these are ideal times to engage in some exercise together 

7. Ask for advice and help

If you find your pet is struggling with separation, reach out for support. Family or friends might be able to help pet-sit or break up alone time with drop-in visits. You can engage a dog walker to provide a midday visit or take your dog to a day-care during the day while working on separation issues. If you and your pet require more specialised support, reach out to a qualified pet behaviourist.