Separation Anxiety in Cats and Dogs

The District Vet

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Thankfully there has been a recent shift in today’s society that is making the discussion of mental health such as anxiety and depression more socially acceptable. There are many parallels between human medicine and veterinary medicine and mental health of our pets is no exception. Cats and dogs can experience anxiety and it can negatively impact their overall health and the human-animal bond that we all treasure. In the times of COVID-19, pet owners are noticing separation anxiety more than ever. Here are some signs of separation anxiety to look for in your furry friends as well as some home remedies.

As stoic and independent as cats can appear, they can struggle with separation anxiety when their owners leave for work or weekend trips. Have you noticed any of the signs below?

  • Destructive tendencies – Do you come home to find shredded toilet paper that makes it appear as though the roll itself imploded? Doesyour favorite pair of shoes now have teeth marks?
  • Aggression – Do you notice that your cat is biting or scratching people or other animals in the house aside from their usual sass?
  • Not using the litter box – Does your cat have a new favorite place in the house to urinate or defecate? While this could be a sign of anxiety this could also be a more serious medical condition such as a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI).
  • Increased vocalization – Does your cat sing the song of their people—such as yowling at night or meowing more throughout the day? (This does not include cats voicing their concerns that their food bowl is now half empty and starvation is imminent.)

As happy as our dogs can be when we come home, they can also become upset when we leave. Dogs can learn your morning routine and can begin to anticipate your departure which can eventually lead to separation anxiety. Signs of separation anxiety in dogs can present as any of the signs listed below.

  • Pacing – Does your pooch constantly pace around the door or one area of the house when you spy on them through your pet cams?
  • Accidents in the house – Your dog is potty trained but you come home to urine or stool in the house?
  • Increased vocalization – Can you hear your pup barking or whining after you have left the same room or the house?
  • Destructive tendencies – Is your pup normally a gentle giant but when you leave turns into a weapon of mass destruction?
  • Decreased appetite – Is your dog’s favorite time of the day breakfast or dinner but they don’t touch their food bowl when you’re gone?

If you have noticed one or more of the signs above for your dog or cat, this could be an indication your pet is affected by anxiety. The next best step is to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian so they can discuss options with you. This will also ensure that your pet is otherwise healthy.

Treatments for Anxiety

Now that you know some signs of anxiety to look out for, here are some treatments that can be considered to help make your pet comfortable and confident.

Kennel Training Dogs – Providing a safe space for your pup can make all the difference. Sometimes large areas or free roaming abilities of the entire house can be intimidating for dogs and they might do better in small controlled rooms or kennels. I recommend teaching your dog that a kennel is a happy place by feeding them in the kennel and giving treats there.

Treats – Try offering a high reward treat right before you leave. This can help pets learn that your departure is actually exciting. For dogs, you can consider a Kong filled with peanut butter, cheese, carrots, apple pieces, or yogurt. For an extra bonus, you can put the treat filled Kong in the freezer overnight to help distract your pup in a positive way for a longer amount of time. For cats, you can consider giving a catnip filled toy. Alternatively, you can get a cat licky mat and cover it in Churu!

Altering Greetings/Departures – As exciting as it is to come home to our furry friends, if we make our return exciting this can reinforce the idea that leaving is stressful. Therefore, I recommend putting your pup in the kennel five minutes before you leave and not providing any acknowledgement of your pup until five minutes after your return. If they bark or whine upon return, please keep your pup in the kennel until they are calm. Once they are calm, let them out of the kennel and go outside for a potty break and then give lots of attention and praise. This will help teach your dog to be calm with departures and arrivals.

Pheromones – This is a species specific hormone that animals can use to communicate with one another. As humans, we are not able to smell these hormones but dogs and cats can. There are products such as Adaptil and Feliway, for dogs and cats respectively that come in collars, sprays, or plug-in diffusers to help keep your pets calm. They utilize calming pheromones that are released from the mom to help keep their puppies or kitties nice and relaxed.

Probiotics – These are just like what you eat in yogurt to help promote good gut health. However, this does not mean you can feed your pet yogurt or human probiotics for the calming properties. There is an exact species of probiotics that have been scientifically shown to reduce stress and anxiety in pets. Calming Care has been created specifically for cats and dogs to help reduce stress anxiety.

Medication – There are a couple of options for prescription level medications that can be prescribed to help keep your pet calm. Don’t be surprised if you hear medications such as Gabapentin, or Prozac mentioned. There are many more medications to choose from and they come in many forms such as liquid, pill, or capsule. Your veterinarian will help find the perfect medication for your pet, if needed.

If your pet has separation anxiety, this can be stressful on the human side as well. Luckily, there are several ways owners and veterinarians can intervene and help decrease stress. We hope that this has been helpful and please know your veterinarian is only a call away. We are passionate about keeping your pets as stress free as possible, healthy, and happy!

Rochelle Camden, DVM, associate veterinarian, at District Veterinary Hospital.