Consider your pet’s perspective—for nearly three months, your family has been around the house, with constant activity. Suddenly one morning, everyone is sad. They hug you, and pat your head. Then, everyone leaves, and you are completely alone. For how long? Forever?
Our pets don’t have any concept of time, so any departure can feel scary and final. Changes in routine can be stressful, unhealthy, and dangerous for pets, who need a gradual transition to adapt to changes in their environment and schedule. Mill Creek Animal Hospital suggests these helpful steps a few weeks before school begins.
#1: Plan where your pet will stay
Will your pet be well-behaved while you are away, or will you return home to mass destruction? Consider your pet’s tendencies to determine if they need to be crated or confined to a small room for their safety, and your home’s. Introduce a crate through positive training, so it becomes a desirable place for your pet.
#2: Rearrange your pet’s exercise routine
Your pet will be spending 8 to 12 hours alone, storing up energy for when you return. Physical and mental exercise in the morning as well as the evening will alleviate stress and reduce behavioral problems, so give your pet a good workout. Consider doggie daycare if your dog is a social animal.
#3: Adjust your dog’s potty schedule
Healthy adult dogs are capable of holding their bladder for an average workday, but they may still need to adjust their routine—after all, they may have a habit of drinking lots of water at 11 a.m., because they are let outside at 2 p.m. Begin to stagger potty breaks for adult dogs, gradually increasing the time between breaks.
Puppies and senior dogs should not be expected to hold on past their physical limits, so ensure you plan accordingly. Provide a secondary option, such as potty pads or a litter pan, in case they cannot wait for you, or consider hiring a dog walker.
#4: Keep departures and arrivals low-key for your pet
Pets are observant, and quickly learn patterns and rituals. We are often creatures of habit with our actions, and they predict the events that will follow. We put on our shoes, pick up our purse or wallet from the entry table, and jingle our keys. Your pet knows this is a precursor to your departure, and may become visibly upset if they experience separation anxiety. Try to vary your exit strategy to prevent their stress by being variable, not predictable.
Resist the temptation to fawn over your pet with hugs, kisses, and apologies for leaving. These will also become cues and increase your pet’s anxiety. Keep your actions and movements low-key, hand your pet a treat if you choose, and walk out. Your return should be subdued, as well.
#5: Keep your pet busy with toys and puzzles, if possible
The day can be long and boring if napping is your pet’s only activity. If your pet is not destructive, introduce stuffable toys like Kongs and other problem-solving puzzles. Licking and chewing to get the food out of the toy will occupy their mind, and their senses. Supervise your pet at first, to ensure they will play respectfully. If they try to chew or swallow toy bits, they cannot be left alone with them.
#6: Start with short trips away from your pet
Once you’ve established where your pet will spend the day, start taking short trips away from home, again leaving them calmly. Assess your pet’s behavior when you return—are they panting, pacing, their eyes wide open? Check their surroundings—pets with separation anxiety typically become destructive, and may eliminate indoors. If your pet is handling your absence well, increase the time of your trips, but if they are agitated, or have damaged their environment, ask your veterinarian for advice.
#7: Recognize separation anxiety in your pet
If your pet becomes excessively clingy and panicked when you are leaving the house, or destructive while you are gone, they could have separation anxiety. This condition is best addressed by your veterinarian, who may refer you to a veterinary behaviorist. They will develop a plan for overcoming your pet’s stress and anxiety that will include teaching them new, positive associations and coping skills, and may include anti-anxiety medication.
The change from summer to school-year can feel like a cruel joke to our pets. Since we cannot stop the seasons, we should do everything we can to keep our pets comfortable and stress-free through every change. Call Mill Creek Animal Hospital if you suspect your pet may have separation anxiety, or you would like a referral to a veterinary behaviorist.