Separation anxiety can cause significant consequences for pets and their owners. The extreme stress can result in emotional trauma and physiologic issues for your pet, and their behavior can lead to serious home destruction. Our team at Mill Creek Animal Hospital would like to give you information on this distressing behavioral syndrome, to help you manage your pet’s distressing condition.

What is separation anxiety in pets?

Separation anxiety is a behavioral disorder in which a pet becomes severely stressed when they cannot reach their owner. This can occur when their owner leaves the home, or if they are blocked from gaining access to their owner. Dogs are highly social creatures, and thrive when they are part of a family group. To maintain social contact, they use attachment behaviors to create bonds with other adults, and between offspring and parent. Being cut off from their family group can trigger anxiety and panic. While cats are not considered as sociable as dogs, they can also suffer from separation anxiety. A 2019 study showed that 64 percent of cats evaluated displayed less stress when they were near their owners.

What are separation anxiety signs in pets?

When a dog is unable to gain access to their family group, the resultant anxiety can trigger signs such as:

  • Vocalization — Your dog may howl, bark, and whine, to notify other family members about the problem.
  • Digging and chewing — In an effort to remove barriers between themselves and their family members, dogs may become destructive.
  • Increased activity — To find a way to restore contact with their family, they will become hyperactive. 
  • Urination or defecation — As their efforts to regain contact fail, the stress may cause pets to urinate or defecate in the home.

Separation anxiety signs in cats include:

  • Excessive vocalization
  • Urinating or defecating outside their litter box
  • Excessive grooming
  • Destructive behavior

What causes separation anxiety in pets?

Separation anxiety typically evolves because of changes in the home or the owner’s schedule. A dog who is being adopted from a shelter or rescue may be predisposed to developing separation anxiety. A cat can be predisposed to developing separation anxiety if they are female, live strictly indoors, do not have other household pets, or were orphaned, weaned early, or bottle-raised.

How is separation anxiety diagnosed in pets?

A history detailing your pet’s behavior is important to determine if your pet is affected by separation anxiety.

  • Velcro pet — Pets who develop separation anxiety typically display hyper-attachment behaviors when their owner is home. They may always keep their owner in sight, or they may constantly stay at their owner’s side.
  • Pre-departure anxiety — As their owner is preparing to leave, pets affected by separation anxiety will usually become anxious. They recognize signs such as picking up a purse, rattling car keys, and putting on outerwear.
  • Exhibiting signs while their owner is absent — Videotaping may be necessary to find out exactly what behaviors your pet exhibits while you are gone. These signs may include vocalization, chewing, digging, urination and defecation, and excessive grooming.
  • Over-excited greeting When their owner returns home, these pets exhibit exaggerated excitement that they have returned.

Your pet will also need a thorough medical work-up to ensure that a medical issue is not causing the behavioral issue.

How is separation anxiety managed in pets?

In situations where the condition is severe, separation anxiety can be hard to treat. Management involves environmental and behavior modification, and drug therapy is often required.

  • Environmental modification — Create a safe haven in an open crate or a small room where your pet feels comfortable. You can provide special treats and place your clothing in the area to make them feel more relaxed. Food-puzzle toys are a great way to redirect your pet’s attention to something pleasant. Encourage your pet to stay in this area when you are home, so they will learn to understand that they do not have to stay by your side at all times.
  • Behavior modification — To help your pet disassociate certain cues from your actual departure, perform the typical activities before you leave your home, such as picking up your keys, putting on your coat, and turning off lights, but do not leave. Do this several times a day, until your pet no longer acts stressed during the process. Once they are desensitized to your departure cues, you can begin desensitizing them to your actual departure. Start by leaving for short periods, and gradually increase the time you are away. Ensure that your departure and return are drama-free, to signal to your pet that the situation is not cause for concern.
  • Drug therapy — Numerous medications are available to help manage separation anxiety, and our veterinary professionals at Mill Creek Animal Hospital will be glad to help determine if drug therapy is right for your stressed out pet.

Punishing your pet for anxiety-related behavior is contraindicated, and could result in their condition worsening. Patience is important when helping your pet manage their separation anxiety. If you believe your pet is suffering from separation anxiety, do not hesitate to contact our American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA)-accredited team at Mill Creek Animal Hospital, to schedule an appointment.