Separation Distress in Pets

Pet Care Pets Pet Health Animals Article taken from The Biscuit magazine Dogs Posted Jan 27, 2021
Does your pet love you TOO much? How do we know when our pets are anxious or distressed?
We take a look into what separation distress actually is and ways you can help your pet at home. 

Read the full article in Issue 10 of The Biscuit Magazine, now available to purchase across Australia!
Cassie's Story

Cassie the Staffy cross Cattle Dog was adopted from the RSPCA last year. Her new humans are great; they shower her with love and attention, always buy the tastiest food and let her cuddle up for movie times! But Cassie has separation anxiety. 

Her humans do their best to be at home often, but sometimes they can’t. Life just gets in the way… a story many pet owners know well. Music calms Cassie, and it’s not uncommon for her parents to come home and find her curled up on the couch, listening along. But sometimes she still gets nervous and her humans come home to a surprise or two.

adopted dog with separation anxiety rspca queensland

Common behaviours that can often be confused with separation distress

Boredom, medical issues, lack of physical and mental stimulation, alarm or guard barking and lack of appropriate chew items for teething puppies. These behaviours are not separation distress or anxiety.

Tip: If you’re planning on adopting a pet, ensure you gradually prepare them for being alone. Always provide enrichment to keep them entertained in your absence. Simply spending two weeks of leave with your new dog 24/7 and heading back to work for an eight hour day is enough to cause severe separation issues.

What should I do if I think my pet has separation distress or anxiety?

It is vitally important to have a consultation with your veterinarian about your pet’s behaviour to seek advice and treatment options if separation anxiety or distress is present.

dog waiting for owner separation distress

What causes separation distress in pets?

  • It can be genetic. Dogs bred from anxious parents are more inclined to suffer from anxiety disorders.
  • Humans not teaching dogs how to be “alone” from a young age.
  • A response to traumatic experiences.

The following suggestions may help in your situation, but pet owners should consult with their veterinarian for advice first.  

Desensitisation is the best way to decrease the sensitivity your pet has to a specific thing, such as your departure. 

Desensitisation involves a very gradual process of exposing your pet to a much less intense version of the thing or event they fear in such a way that the fear isn’t triggered. In this case, it would look like this:

  • Begin by going about your normal leaving ritual, but then sit back down on the couch. Do this with regular repetitions so your dog learns that your departure cues don’t always predict you leaving.
  • You can then work up to walking towards the door, touching the door handle and sitting back down on the couch.
  • Then progress to opening the door, stepping out, and then coming back in.
Gradually, you would try leaving the house for short periods of time (starting at a few seconds) and gradually increasing your pet’s alone time. This may not always be possible for people who work full time, so enlist the help of family friends to do visits to check up on your pet. 
Tips to try at home for pets with separation distress:

  1. Ask a pet sitter to mind your pet while you are away.
  2. Take your pooch to doggy day care while you’re out. Our friends at Paws & Relax can help in Brisbane. 
  3. Is your pet getting enough exercise? Sometimes your pet’s activity levels and you being busy may be causing them to display separation anxiety behaviours.
  4. Does your pet have enough mental stimulation while you are away? Try long lasting treat toys from RSPCA World for Pets.
  5. Getting another pet for company may or may not assist in keeping your pet company and reduce separation related behaviours. You may find yourself with two dogs with separation distress related issues.
  6. Try products like Adaptil for dogs from RSPCA World for Pets.
  7. Music can be calming to animals, such as Through a Dogs Ear or the Pet Acoustics Pet Cube.
  8. Teach your pet that they have a safe location to go to. For example their bed, which may or may not be in a crate.  Read more about crate training your dog here. 
  9. Ensure your pet always has visible identification and a microchip in case they do escape and find themselves lost, so they can be reunited with you. 
  10. Take your dog to training classes to help them learn new skills and keep their mind active. Find an RSPCA School for Dogs class near you here. 

Read the full article in Issue 10 of The Biscuit Magazine, plus many more pet care articles!

cassie's day at the beach rspca qld adopted dog
Above: RSPCA Adopted dog Cassie, getting out and about with her owners.

lauren hope bickley

Lauren Bickley
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