Separation anxiety can occur in both dogs and cats, and may lead to destructive behavior, aggression, house soiling, and other undesirable actions. Punishment will only make the problem worse; desensitization is the only true way to curb a pet’s behavior and make them feel comfortable again.
Our domestic pets are social animals. Dogs, in particular, live in packs in the wild and retain some of these instincts when domesticated. While cats are generally more independent, they too require social stimulation. Relationships that pets have with each other in the wild establish a sense of group hierarchy and stability, and our pets turn to us for that stability in the home.
When a pet feels abandoned, separation anxiety takes hold, leading to the undesirable responses associated with the disorder. This can occur when a pet owner leaves the house completely, or it can happen when the pet owner simply leaves the room.
Signs of Anxiety
Destructive chewing or scratching, attempted escape, excessive vocalizations like howling, barking, or meowing, inappropriate elimination, possible coprophagia (consuming fecal matter), and excess drooling are all signs of separation anxiety. Puppies that seem impossible to housebreak are sometimes suffering from separation anxiety.
In cats, the most common symptom of separation anxiety is urinating or defecating inappropriately, perhaps on an owner’s personal belongings.
Since many of these symptoms could be caused by a variety of other illnesses or disorders, a veterinarian will take steps to rule out other health problems before settling on a diagnosis of separation anxiety.
The process of desensitization will involve having a pet remain alone for very short periods, then reinforcing their good behavior with praise and treats. This must be done slowly and consistently—leaving a pet alone for too long a period can cause an animal to revert back to their original anxious feelings.
Owners should be sure to make their own comings and goings from the house uneventful. If a fuss is made every time the owner leaves the house or comes back, a pet’s anxiety is only increased. Think about stressful triggers, like the jangling of keys or the moving of a purse. These actions can serve as negative emotional indicators for a pet and should be avoided.
For severe cases of separation anxiety, anti-anxiety medications like fluoxetine, clomipramine, or amitriptyline can be prescribed to help keep pets calm. In almost all cases, these drugs must be combined with a behavior modification regimen in order to see positive results—such medications are not a “quick fix” for a pet’s anxiety.
Pet owners do not have to deal with their pet’s separation anxiety on their own. It’s recommended that owners consult with a professional animal behaviorist to get a pet’s anxiety under control. Since we tend to instinctively associate human behavior with our dogs’ behavior (anthropomorphism), an impartial viewpoint can be extremely helpful when combating separation anxiety.
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