Does your dog, cat or bird hate being left alone? Dr Jo discusses how we can help our pets cope.
Most of the time our pets live relaxed, care-free and fun-filled lives – and we adore them. Then we have to go out – to shop, to visit friends, to play tennis – activities that our pets cannot participate in. Our pets are home alone.
For the majority of pets this is not an issue. They are well exercised, well fed and simply sleep the time away. For some pets, however, being left alone is akin to a young toddler being left in day care for the first time, unsure when and if mum or dad are coming home. These pets are extremely bonded to their owners and when left alone, anxiety sets in.
Anxiety prepares our bodies to get away from a potentially dangerous situation. There may be nothing risky in your home but the adrenalin that floods your pet’s body often compels your pet to act. Dogs may try to escape, pull washing off the line, dig holes in the lawn, bark incessantly or urinate and defecate all over your home. Cats favour the latter behaviour too, with inappropriate urination being a common symptom of feline stress. A stressed cat will often sleep more than usual too. Birds may become noisy or destructive, sometimes plucking their own feathers out.
This separation anxiety is common in pets that spend a lot of time with their owners. We don’t understand, however, why some pets, who are equally attached, don’t fret when left alone. Fortunately there are some things you can do to alleviate your pet’s stress.
Tips for relieving pet stress
- Scale down the hellos and goodbyes. Leave quietly and with minimum fuss and be home for a couple of minutes before giving your pet any acknowledgment.
- Change your routine, so that the grab bag, switch off lights, grab keys routine is not a signal to your pet to start getting stressed. Vary the routine each time you go out and sometimes perform the routine when not actually going anywhere.
- Give your pet a “job” to do while you are out. This is usually best determined by the pet’s motivation for toys, food or other forms of stimulation. Most dogs will happily be occupied by a food-releasing toy such as a treat ball, stuffed with tasty treats.
- Take the toys away again when you are home. Again this saves the fun for when home alone and creates a novelty value.
- Consider creating a ‘den-like’ area for your dog. A quiet and dark area e.g. under a bed or table, can help a dog feel more secure. Simply restricting the area available can make many dogs feel more secure. Provide shelves or window sills for cats.
- Leave a radio on, playing talk-back radio or classical music, as this helps settle many pets.
- Leave your pet with a blanket or sweater that smells of you.
- Lavender can calm animals down, so sprinkle some essential oils around.
- Adaptil (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) or Feliway for cats are pheromones that calm pets. A diffuser is available from your vet.
- Leave your pet when they are tired. Take your dog for a walk prior to leaving or play with your pet. Also stimulate their brains by doing some training.
Solutions for separation anxiety
In the long term, separation anxiety can be treated by gradual separations from the dog, starting while you are at home. Many pets with this condition follow their owner from room to room, so try to separate from your pet for 30 seconds. Put the kettle on, for example, or make your bed while your pet is left in another room. Return to your pet when they are quiet. Build up the separation time to 30 minutes and introduce occasions when you leave the home, following all the tips given above. If your pet is severely stressed talk to your vet about anti-anxiety medication.
Separation vs boredom
Boredom can have many of the same symptoms as separation anxiety. If your pet exhibits symptoms close to your departure time, then it is likely to be separation anxiety. If your pet is home alone for hours before symptoms begin, then your pet is more likely to be bored.
Setting up a webcam or using new technologies that provide visuals of your pets at home can help owners realise that their pets are not as upset as they think or confirm that a problem exists.
Owners often feel guilty about leaving their pet alone and some may even have their own separation anxiety at being apart from their pet. Enlisting the help of friends to pet sit, using pet day care or having play dates can help some animals.
While separation anxiety is an unwanted problem, we should empathise, as it exists due to the love and attachment of owner and pet.
About Dr Jo
Dr Jo Righetti is an animal behaviour consultant who helps people understand pets and any behavioural issues they may have. Her website www.petproblemsolved.com.au has lots of advice on pets. Dr Jo is a proud Ambassador of Animal Welfare League Australia (AWLA).
“For some pets, however, being left alone is akin to a young toddler being left in day care for the first time, unsure when and if mum or dad are coming home.”