If you pet is destroying objects, offer him a long-lasting chew toy or food dispensing toy. (Courtesy SPCA)

If you pet is destroying objects, offer him a long-lasting chew toy or food dispensing toy. (Courtesy SPCA)

Preventing separation anxiety after shelter-in-place

Training will help keep your pet mentally stimulated


Separation anxiety in pets is quite common, and it’s one of the top reasons why pets visit the San Francisco SPCA’s Behavior Specialty Clinic. As we’ve sheltered in place during the pandemic, many dogs and cats have grown accustomed to having their owners at home nearly constantly. These pets are in for a drastic change as The City starts to reopen. Now is the time to start preparing your pets and setting them up for a smooth and successful transition.

Both cats and dogs can exhibit separation related distress, though there are far fewer studies on separation anxiety in cats. Studies have shown that 13% to 17% of owned dogs and more than 13% of cats experience separation anxiety, and the actual numbers are likely higher. We suspect separation anxiety is underdiagnosed because pets who suffer without vocalizing or causing destruction within the home often go unnoticed and untreated. For dogs, separation anxiety feels like the equivalent of a panic attack, so the behaviors they exhibit can range from mild to severe. Cat behaviors can also vary depending on the animal’s response to stress.

Signs that your cat or dog might be struggling with anxiety include excessive vocalizations, destroying objects in your home, inappropriate elimination (dogs having accidents in the home or cats urinating outside of the litter box), obsessive grooming, lethargy and following the owner around the home. If you suspect your pet might be experiencing separation anxiety, consider videotaping them when you’re not at home to look for signs of stress.

Thankfully, there are many steps you can take to help prepare your animal to be confident when left alone as San Francisco begins to reopen:

Establish a routine

* Practice short separations: If your dog or cat is constantly following you around the home, try to establish a routine to close the door between you and the pet for short periods of time. Even if it is just for taking a shower or watching an episode of your favorite show.

* Practice departures: Start with short ones and gradually increase the duration.

* Teach the benefit of a long lasting chew toy or food dispensing toy: Feed meals in food-dispensing toys to keep your pet busy and engaged. If your dog is not already used to this then try it first when you are in another room.

* Keep arrivals and departures low key: When leaving and coming home, stay calm and don’t make a big fuss. If your dog gives you over-the-top greetings for extended periods when you arrive home, then watch out for triggers that may cause concern when you are leaving. Such triggers could be putting on shoes, or taking out a jacket or purse. If those behaviors cause your dog to show signs of stress, try to avoid them when you are actually leaving. Place all those items directly by the door so you can just rab and dash. Then, when you are not actually leaving home, practice putting on your shoes but not going anywhere. This will help change the negative association.

* Exercise your pet prior to leaving: Depending on your dog’s physical abilities, try giving him some extra exercise so he’s tired when you leave home. Most dogs will rest while you’re gone.

Find ways to reduce anxiety and keep pets stimulated

* Leave out or hide treat-dispensing puzzles: If you have someone coming to walk your dog or check on your cat throughout the day, this person can refill the puzzle during their visit. Turn on soft music or television. Comforting voices or quiet music can soothe animals who are home alone and can help mask the distracting noises from outside.

* Talk to your vet about a stress-reducing pheromone: Products to consider include Adaptil for dogs and Feliway for cats.

Training is a great way to keep your pet mentally stimulated and prepare them for alone time. Practice cues like “stay” and “go to mat.” Once your pet understands the cues, start practicing short separations by leaving to go to another room for five to 10 minutes. If your dog exhibits any signs of stress, return to the room and try again later with a shorter interval. Visit the San Francisco SPCA’s YouTube page (@sanfranciscospca) for step-by-step instructions on these training cues.

If you’ve tried these tips and your pet is still showing signs of separation anxiety, it’s time to get help. Talk to your veterinarian and contact the San Francisco SPCA’s Behavior Specialty Clinic. It’s important to get help before your pet’s anxiety worsens, especially if you plan to start leaving home more often in the coming months.

For more information, visit sfspca.org/behavior or email behaviorinfo@sfspca.org.

Dr. Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB, DACAW, CAWA, is senior vice president of rescue and welfare at the San Francisco SPCA. If you have an animal medical or behavioral question, email askdrberger@sfspca.org.

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