I love traveling to see my family at the holidays, but I always worry about what to do with my dog, Eva. It’s not always possible to bring her along, and she has terrible separation anxiety. Even if I leave the house for just 10 minutes, I hear her howling mournfully as soon as I close the front door. At a loss for what to do this year, I reached out to experts to learn how to ease separation anxiety in dogs — and other furry friends.
“Over the past year and a half, many pets have gotten even more attached to their owners than before due to the endless time spent together,” adds Dr. Sarah Wooten, DVM and veterinary expert for Pumpkin Pet Insurance. “They may not take kindly to being left behind for extended periods.” Knowing that my dog will be even more upset than normal when I leave, I realized it was important to change my approach this year.
How do you know if your pet has separation anxiety?
Some signs of separation anxiety are obvious, while others might surprise you. “Like people, dogs are social creatures and can suffer with anxiety issues – with different triggers, which may manifest in various ways,” Genna Mize, DVM and Technical Service Veterinarian for Virbac, tells First for Women.
“The most common signs to look for in your dog include pacing, hiding, shaking, destruction of property, and inappropriate urination/defecation – e.g. going ‘potty’ inside. You might also notice some behaviors that would be considered normal such as panting, grooming, and vocalizing exhibited in excess by your anxious dog. For example, if your dog barks incessantly when you leave the house, your pet might suffer from separation anxiety, one of the most common types of anxiety we see and treat in veterinary practice.”
In cats, some signs are similar, and some are different. Cats may excessively cry, meow, or vocalize when you leave, according to the Ohio State University. They may also refuse to eat or drink while you are away, urinate or defecate in inappropriate places, vomit, excessively self-groom, destroy property, and become extremely friendly when you return.
So, what can you do? From starting new routines to trying out supplements, there are plenty of ways to reduce your pet’s separation anxiety. We recommend these four expert-approved tips
1. Test out desensitization.
Dr. Mize believes that one of the first things you should try with a dog is desensitization. “Desensitization works by slowly exposing your dog to the triggers of their anxiety and using positive reinforcement to help foster a positive experience,” she says.
Dr. Wooten agrees, and believes this method can be used for cats and other pets as well. “To mitigate [separation anxiety] challenges, you can begin to prepare your pet weeks in advance of a trip,” she says. “Start by spending increasingly longer amounts of time away here and there so that it doesn’t feel incredibly drastic when you leave for real. Each time you do this, you can leave your pet with an old t-shirt or something else that smells like you to make the separation easier.”
2. Meet your pet sitter in advance.
Whether you have a pet sitter or kennel stay lined up, it might help to introduce your pet to the new environment in advance. Pets with anxiety tend to have a terrible time visiting new places without their owners, in part because the new place is so unfamiliar. Making that space a little more familiar can ease the transition.
“It’s a good idea to have your pet spend some time with the person that will be watching them when you’re away to build a positive association early on,” says Dr. Wooten.
In addition, ask your pet sitter or local kennel about the routine for boarding pets. If you know the routine your sitter or kennel will use, you can practice it at home with your cat or dog. “A fixed routine in a calm environment can support your anxious dog,” Dr. Mize says. “Predictability in mealtime, walks, bathroom breaks, and waking up and going to bed can be of tremendous benefit.”
3. Try an anti-anxiety product.
Sometimes, preparation isn’t enough to ease those moving-day jitters. In that case, it might help to try out a few anti-anxiety products. For dogs, Dr. Mize and Dr. Wooten both recommend thundershirts. “Thundershirts exert pressure, so your dog feels hugged or swaddled and thus safe in the face of their fear,” says Dr. Mize. There is also a version of the Thundershirt for cats.
In addition, you might try a calming product that contains pheromones, or chemicals that pets naturally release when they need to communicate with other pets. The chemicals in calming pet products mimic a specific type of pheromone, which relieves anxiety.
For dogs, Dr. Mize recommends pheromone impregnated collars and diffusers, such as the Adaptil diffuser, or the Adaptil collar. For cats, Dr. Wooten recommends a pheromone spray like Feliway. Other calming supplements to try include l-tryptophan, milk protein, CBD oil, or l-theanine.
4. Talk to your vet.
Before you try a product or a supplement on your pet, speak to your vet. A veterinarian who knows your dog or cat will be able to tell you which products might work best. Even if you don’t try an anti-anxiety supplement, talking to your vet about the problem is a good idea.
“Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all solution for canine anxiety,” says Dr. Mize. “But while there are many causes of anxiety, there are also many solutions! It is important to work with your veterinarian or a professional animal behaviorist to understand the source of your dog’s stress-induced actions.”
The same is true for cats. “If your pet is very anxious, ask your vet about prescription strength calming medication,” says Dr. Wooten. “As much as we all love our pets, it’s healthy for everyone to get comfortable spending some time apart here and there!”
By seeking help and creating a strategy before you send your pet off to a sitter, you will be able to create a smoother transition for you and your loved one. I am definitely trying out a few of these tricks on my own sweet pup!