For a (furry) portion of the population, social restrictions and lockdowns were actually a real bonus. Working from home, hospitality closures and travel restrictions have all meant increased time at home with our pets, most of whom have become used to spending much more time than normal with their humans.
But as the world slowly returns to normal and more of us head back to work and out to meet friends and family, separation anxiety is a real concern for pet owners, although not one for an emergency vets visit. Below we’ve rounded up some vet-approved tips and tricks for you and your furry companion to fall back into the old normal.
What is separation anxiety?
Affecting both humans and animals, separation anxiety is the fear or stress of being apart from someone else. It’s particularly prevalent in dogs, who are pack animals by nature and don’t thrive on their own. Unlike humans, dogs don’t need ‘alone time’ – they never need a break or a moment alone to stare off into the distance.
When they’re by themselves or apart from their owners, pets – and particularly dogs – can get anxious and upset. It can be similar to a panic attack in humans; pets don’t understand that their humans are just nipping out to the shops for a few hours, or will be back at the end of the day, and so can work themselves up into a frenzy.
Common symptoms of pet separation anxiety include:
How to help your pet deal with separation anxiety
Because most owners can’t devote 24 hours a day to their pets, you might find yourself wondering how to stop pet separation anxiety. According to our vets, there are a number of steps you can take, both before and during your absence from home, to try to ease some of the symptoms. Every pet and pet owner is different, though there are some vet-approved things you can try to ease separation anxiety.
1. Get them used to alone time
Gradually increase the time your pet is left alone, and try it a couple of times a day. Whether you move to another room, pop out for a walk around the block or take a quick trip to the shop, keep slowly increasing the time you leave them by themselves. This is known as ‘independence training’, and works particularly well if your pet has a space (e.g. a crate, basket or particular corner) that’s their own.
2. Keep them calm when you come and go
Try to make your exit as low-key and relaxed as possible. Your pet can sense your mood and your own anxiety, so keeping things calm is essential. Try not to make too much noise or rush around too much as you prepare to leave, and make sure your pet is as chilled out as possible.
If you’re a dog owner, you’re probably used to being greeted at the front door as though you’ve been away for years. As tempting as it is to match your pet’s energy and give them a huge fuss, try to wait until they’ve calmed down before you give them any attention. Over time, this will teach them that your absences aren’t such a big deal.
3. Switch up your routine
If you always put on your coat, grab your bag and jingle your keys before you leave, your pet will start to associate these movements with being left alone. Try putting your coat on and walking around the house for a while, or carrying your keys while you make a cup of tea. Switching up and desensitising your pet to your pre-departure clues will take some time – you’ll need to do these things several times a day for quite some time in order to persuade your pet that you putting on your shoes or packing your bag doesn’t always lead to you leaving.
4. Arrange for company
If you can, try to arrange for a friend, family member, neighbour or pet sitter to visit while you’re out. Most pets just crave companionship and – while it might be tough to hear – it doesn’t even need to be you. There are lots of qualified dog walking services available too, so it might be an option to arrange for your pet to have a nice walk or do a bit of socialising to break up the day.
5. Calm their nerves
For dogs showing signs of anxiety or going through any changes of routine, our vets often recommend using Yucalm (a herbal calming supplement) and/or Adaptil (a pheromone diffuser) alongside behavioural training.
Ask your vet for recommendations on the best ways to keep your pet’s nerves in check.
6. Make sure they’re well-exercised
Making sure your pet gets enough exercise is always important, but going for a bit of a walk before you leave for work might actually have other benefits besides your dog’s health. “Morning air will set you up for the day,” says Michaela Bell, of Throw A Dog A Bone. “Plus, your dog will have had some exercise and stimulation, so they’ll be tired and ready for a nap when you leave for the day.”
How to deal with your anxiety about being apart from your pet
Taking care of your pet’s wellbeing is vital, but looking after your own mental health is just as important! Returning to life after lockdown can be stressful, and being apart from your pet may be just as hard for you as it is for them.
“In general, pet owners have much more separation anxiety than their pets,” says Barbara Farfan, from International Petsitter Enterprises. “Humans can be obsessive when they start playing the ‘what if’ game of worst case scenarios in their head.”
Holistic mental health practitioner Natalie Hardie of NH Neuro Training says worrying about leaving pets alone is natural. “Anxiety is your body’s natural response to stress and uncertainty. It can be a stressful experience to separate from your pet after being inseparable during quarantine…There may be feelings of loss and sadness due to having to return to the office.”
We know how hard it is to say goodbye to those faces, so we’ve compiled a list of things to try to help ease your own separation anxiety.