The bond between pet and owner is deeper than ever, with dogs and cats being upgraded from companion to full-fledged family member. And, while the team at Marina Village Veterinary and Integrative Care celebrates the increased love and devotion that comes with this promotion, some pets are experiencing an unhealthy over-attachment to their owners known as separation anxiety.
Many misunderstandings about separation anxiety leave pets undiagnosed or progressively more anxious when their well-meaning owners use the wrong treatment approach. Therefore, we’ve compiled a list of the most common myths, and provide our honest answers, so you can identify separation anxiety, manage the signs, and bring balance and peace back to your pet-owner relationship.
Myth: Separation anxiety is easy to identify in pets
Fact: Separation anxiety can masquerade as other behavior issues and vice versa, making identification difficult in some contexts. This progressive condition can range from mild to severe, making early identification important for effective treatment. Pets with separation anxiety may begin to show nervous or attention-seeking behaviors before their owner leaves home, as they anticipate departure. These behaviors include:
- Pacing or restlessness
- Panting in dogs
- Body-blocking or door-blocking
Once the owner or bonded person is out of the pet’s sight, signs may progressively intensify, and may include:
- Excessive vocalizing
- House soiling
- Destructive behavior that may be focused around personal belongings
- Digging or scratching, especially around barriers, such as doors and windows
When the pet with separation anxiety is reunited with their owner, they greet them with exuberance, and demand attention. This greeting ritual can be prolonged, and disturbs the owner’s normal routine.
The pet behaves normally when they are with their owner. One easy way to identify separation anxiety in a dog or cat is by asking yourself whether your pet’s behaviors take place when you are present. If they do, the problem is a training issue, and not separation anxiety.
Myth: Only dogs develop separation anxiety
Fact: While dogs are most commonly affected by separation anxiety, cats can experience the same distress when left alone. Cats exhibit similar anticipatory behavior to dogs, including:
- Pre-departure anticipation
- Urination or defecation on their owner’s personal items
- Refusal to eat, or eating excessively in the owner’s absence
- Excessive self-grooming
- Destructive behavior
- Loud and persistent vocalizations (e.g., meowing, yowling)
Because cats can eliminate outside the litter box for many reasons, a full physical examination at Marina Village Veterinary and Integrative Care should always be performed, to rule out medical causes.
Myth: Separation anxiety is caused by an error in pet training
Fact: Not always. Although training and socialization can reduce a puppy or kitten’s likelihood of developing separation anxiety, the causes aren’t always clear, and often are individual to each pet. While rehomed or former shelter pets are more likely to experience over-attachment, separation anxiety can develop in any pet, at any age. Causes are often major life transitions, including:
- Sudden temporary or permanent loss of a family member or fellow pet
- Recent trauma
- New pet or family member
- Changes in routine (i.e., owner returns to work or school after an extended time at home)
- Age-related sensory changes (i.e., blindness, deafness, cognitive dysfunction syndrome)
Previously well-behaved pets may return to normal after a grieving or adjustment period, while seriously affected pets require veterinary intervention. During any transition, maintaining your pet’s daily routine and providing adequate physical and mental exercise may prevent or reduce anxiety.
Myth: Separation anxiety will go away with punishment, time, or by ignoring the pet
Fact: Separation anxiety is a progressive condition that will not improve on its own and that punishment makes worse. Anxious behavior is socially learned, and may cause other household pets to behave similarly, or lead to other anxiety disorders, including noise sensitivity (i.e., aversion) or generalized anxiety disorder.
In some cases, anxiety may have a medical cause that, left untreated, can lead to unnecessary suffering for your pet. If your dog or cat is behaving abnormally, schedule an appointment at Marina Village Veterinary and Integrative Care.
Myth: Medication alone can cure separation anxiety in pets
Fact: Medication must be paired with behavior modification to achieve effective treatment or resolution. Your Marina Village Veterinary and Integrative Care veterinarian will ask you to describe your pet’s behavior at home—or perhaps to video their actions using a webcam—to assess their condition severity. From there, we can provide a tailored treatment plan that will include the three cornerstones of effective separation anxiety treatment:
- Medication — Anti-anxiety medication and supplements can help decrease pet agitation and break the behavior cycle, giving your pet relief, and protecting them from anxiety-induced self harm.
- Behavior modification — Helping your pet learn new habits and positive associations with departures and being alone can form new neural pathways and coping skills.
- Environmental management — We’ll discuss altering your pet’s space—and your departure and arrival routines—to make them less triggering. We will also check that you’re providing adequate mental and physical exercise, so your pet will choose rest and relaxation over panic and fear.
Is your pet experiencing separation anxiety?
If you are concerned about your pet and possible separation anxiety, it’s time for a visit to Marina Village Veterinary Integrative Care. Whether your dog or cat is having trouble adapting to a life change, or has displayed anxious behavior for years, we can help provide relief, restore household peace and harmony, and strengthen the pet-owner bond. Contact us to schedule your pet’s consultation or book your appointment online.