Kids aren’t the only ones with back-to-school blues. Their best buddies suffer from the loss of hours of playtime, too. Millions of dogs (and a few cats) will be waiting anxiously by the door for their playtime pals to return from school.
It’s one of the most common problems faced by pet parents. When they’re down in the dumps, some dogs will whine and whimper, others will go for hours without eating, and some will seclude themselves to one spot while their owners are away.
In fact, “nearly 20% of the nation’s 80 million dogs have separation anxiety,” says Dr. Nick Dodman of Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Massachusetts. What causes separation anxiety is not perfectly understood. It is especially common in shelter pets, but can appear after a big move or change in schedule too – anything that throws them off their game. Those same factors have been known to cause separation anxiety in cats, too.
Identifying Separation Anxiety
How can you tell if what you’re seeing is separation anxiety or just plain bad manners?
Signs of anxiety can surface as soon as a pet sees you grabbing your keys and getting ready to leave. Extreme anxiety can result in escape attempts that can be incredibly destructive, both to your pet and your home. Some cats will cry excessively when their owner leaves. Drooling and other anxious behavior are warning signs in dogs, as are
Diagnosing separation anxiety can be challenging because the signs of separation anxiety could also be due to several non-medical issues, like incomplete house training or even just plain boredom. It’s important to rule out all of those issues before you jump to the separation anxiety. Ask yourself:
Do they feel safe?
This could be especially helpful if the stress is related to a move or similar life change. If a pet was crate trained properly then they should see their crate as a safe haven. Even when life gets crazy, they can go there and know they’ll get fed and have all their toys (and maybe some treats?).
Are they bored?
A lot of behavior problems, including anxiety, can be chalked up to just plain boredom. Lots of physical and mental activities relieve stress and provide ways for your dog to, well, be a dog. Plus, when they’re tired, they’ll probably spend most of their time alone sleeping.
- Exercise. Lots of walking, running, swimming or agility training. At least 30 minutes a day. Change up the routes for mental stimulation.
- Toys and activities. Chewing and licking have a calming effect on dogs. A good perch near a window (preferably with a view of the bird feeder) can entertain a cat for hours.
- Hunting games. Hide treats around the yard, or under a muffin pan full of tennis balls, and let your dog look for them.
- Training. Remember how exhausted you were after learning all day? Teach your old dog some new tricks (and if he’s anything like mine, review some of the old ones 😉 )
Pets like routines. In fact, they love them. Seriously, the sun could go out and my dog would still be sitting in front of the food bowls when 5:30 rolled around. Moving, changes in family dynamics (like a new baby or someone going off to college) and changes in schedule are all things that can make pets anxious.
So if you know that your routine is going to change, like back to school time, start getting in the routine ahead of time, so your pet can acclimate to the new schedule. For example, plan all the errands together and take the kids with you. Gradually make the outings longer and longer. It’s no 7 hour school day, but a few short excursions in the weeks leading up will help him get mentally ready for longer absences.
Treating Separation Anxiety
If you’ve exhausted all alternatives, then there are things you can do to help.
If your pet’s separation anxiety is mild, you can help with some simple training and conditioning exercises.
- Make your departure and arrival super low key. Wait until your pet has calmed down after walking in the door. That way, you coming and going is “no-big-deal”.
- Create a place in the house where the dog feels safe.
- Leave the TV or radio on so they hear people, even if no one is there
- Practice the new routine before school begins. That will give you time to get your pet to adjust, but you can still be there to help.
Now if your pet has severe separation anxiety, you’re going to have to put in some work, and should consult a professional before beginning any type of training because depending how bad the case is, treatment will change depending on the dog’s reaction and sometimes a professional will be able to objectively read a reaction better than you. An objective observer will also ensure that you do not push your pet too hard. Going too far too fast could cause your pet a full blown anxiety attack, which can undo all your hard work up to that point.
If your pet’s blues don’t improve, you might also consider pet sitters, dog walkers and doggy day camp. Medications are also an option, though they should only be used under the supervision of a veterinarian and only for a short time.