Does your pet suffer from separation anxiety? Dr. Madhulal Valliyatte, Chef Veterinarian at Delaware SPCA, addresses your concerns.
Q. After a year-plus of quarantine, my pets are used to having me around. How can I help them adjust now that I’m returning to work, and what are the signs of separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety in pets involves a physiologic response to the stress of isolation or separation from a particular owner. The signs may include hypersalivation, urination, defecation, vomiting, panting, self-mutilation, destruction, attempts to escape, aggression, pacing, vocalization and immobilization.
Dogs with separation anxiety are often hyper-attached to one owner, show increased greeting behavior and follow one family member around the house. Behavioral problems are no different than medical problems. It is recommended to consult with your regular veterinarian about your pet’s condition.
The latency to arousal is the amount of time that it takes for the animal to mount a stress response once the owner has started her morning routine. For example, if the dog begins to show signs of stress when the owner picks up keys, the dog has a long latency to arousal. If the dog shows signs of stress when the owner’s alarm goes off or when he or she takes a shower, there is a short latency to arousal. Dogs with short latency to arousal most probably end up getting at least one medication.
First-line behavior modification and management changes focus on “stopping the bleeding.” I recommend the owner leave the pet with food [and] toys before the pet gets stressed about the departure, hide departure cues from pets and try to pair the owner’s departure with good things. It’s important to reduce excitement around departures and returns, reward the pet when he is relaxed, and do not ever physically punish a pet.
Cats also exhibit signs of separation anxiety, but it can be less aggressive. Some common signs may be house soiling, urinating or defecating exclusively on the owner’s bed, excessive grooming, destructiveness, excessive vocalization and reduced appetite.
The treatment for cats with anxiety include environmental enrichment (provide a hiding place and vertical spaces), as well as food-dispensing toys to help with being alone. Classical music, audio books [and] aromatherapy may also be used to ease anxiety. If the symptoms are more aggressive, consult a veterinarian, who may prescribe medication.
Common stress indicators in pet birds include self-destructive behavior, feather picking, open-beak breathing, fearful or aggressive behavior, trembling and excessive vocalization, and screaming. If your primary veterinarian isn’t comfortable working with these issues, it is recommended to consult with an avian specialist.
Again, environmental enrichment is recommended here, too. Some of the most common themes for enrichment include providing opportunities to exhibit foraging behavior, investigation of novel items, destroying and manipulating items, social interaction, opportunities to exercise and providing puzzles to manipulate.