Pets, Places, & Things, Points on Pets

Separation Anxiety and Your Furry Friends

Separation Anxiety and Your Furry Friends

By Carolyn Cockroft

Summer is peak season for family vacations, and a trip may mean leaving your pet at home alone. Often this departure may trigger anxiety in a pet. While many hotels now allow pets to room with guests, this may not be an option if the owner’s destination is a family or friend who cannot accommodate them.

Separation anxiety, according to many animal behaviorists, is the biggest and most common fear in pets. An animal overly attached to its owner becomes extremely stressed when left alone. Frequent situations, such as the owner’s leaving the house for work, can be a year-round problem for both pet and human. Although dogs are more likely to show more obvious signs of attachment and separation anxiety, cats do form strong social attachments and can become distressed when their owners are not home.

Signs and Causes of Separation Anxiety

Occasional whining or mischief while you’re gone is not necessarily a sign of separation anxiety. More serious symptoms, such as the following, can exasperate owners to the point of giving away their pets:

  • Howling, barking, meowing excessively
  • Indoor accidents, even though the pet is housebroken
  • Chewing clothes or furniture, destructive clawing, scratching at windows and doors
  • Drooling or panting more than usual
  • Pacing, often in an obsessive pattern
  • Urinating or defecating on the owner’s clothing or bedding. A cat will mix his scent with his human’s so as to leave markers for the “parent” to find him and return home.
  • Excessive grooming, which can cause hair loss
  • Clinginess, following pet owner from room to room, constantly trying to get attention
  • Reclusive behavior or loss of appetite
  • Vomiting or diarrhea

So why this behavior in an otherwise happy and affectionate pet? Most often the cause is change.

  • Change in being alone for the first time
  • Change of ownership
  • Change in living in a shelter or former residence to a new home
  • Change in normalcy, routine or schedule (traumatic event, long periods of kenneling, stay-at-home family member goes back to work, kids leaving home, divorce or death of a family member

Be assured, you have done nothing to cause your pet’s distress. He may have never had to be alone. Some pets have a genetic tendency to develop this condition. Nevertheless, separation anxiety could worsen over time if left untreated.

What Can I Do?

As with any abnormal behavior, first consult your veterinarian to rule out any medical causes such as infections, hormone problems, or medications.

The most effective way to prevent separation anxiety is to start when the pet is young and leaving it alone for short periods of time. If the pet is older and anxiety has already become a problem, treatment is mostly behavioral modification. Consider these approaches for helping your pet overcome his misery.

Keep departures low-key and vary the times of coming and going. Victoria Stilwell, dog trainer and star of Animal Planet’s It’s Me or The Dog, says a pet watches its owner and picks up signals of an upcoming departure, such as putting on shoes, applying makeup, picking up keys. “Start to desensitize him to the triggers. You put on your makeup and you don’t leave. You put on your coat and you stay in the house. You break your ritual completely. You go out the door and you come right back. And you do it 50 times a day.” Dr. Ian Dunbar, a veterinary behaviorist ( suggests varying the length of absence from the pet–2 to 10 minutes or longer. Slowly increase the amount of time you’re gone. Make sure the animal is relaxed before you leave and do not use the same door each time.

Provide distractions. Leave a puzzle toy stuffed with treats that the pet will spend time chewing on or licking trying to get them out. This should be given only when you are leaving pets alone and taken away when you return. Cats, in particular, get easily bored and exercise and playtime contribute greatly in reducing anxiety. Also, cat trees or access to windows (preferably, with a view of a bird feeder!) will give them long stretches of entertainment.

Daily exercise is key. Playing with your pet and activities like training games and fetch, dangling a mouse or bird toys, keep your animal friend busy, healthy, happy, tired and less anxious when you leave. Interactive puzzles exercise their minds as well as their bodies.

Employ a sitter who will play with your pet when you are away for extended periods.

Consider medications. Anti-anxiety drugs (such as clomipramine, prozac or nutritional supplements such as the amino acid called L-theanine) are available for short-term as well as on an ongoing basis. Keep in mind that there could be side effects including lethargy, dizziness, water retention and some may affect liver and kidney function. Some pet doctors prefer to use homeopathic remedies or over-the-counter natural calming supplements, such as chamomile, lavender, or Bach flower essences such as Rescue Remedy, combined with behavior modification.  In any case, consult your veterinarian before trying any of these treatments.

Separation anxiety is always going to be distressing, but with time, patience, and of course, much love, you can reduce your pet’s suffering—and yours as well.

BIO: Carolyn is a volunteer at King Street Cats and enjoys being ruled by her two cats, Marigold and Butterbean, who have no anxieties whatsoever.

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