Updated: Jun 20
We have a Chihuahua named Chloe here at the Perpetual Care life care center who starts a kind of howling that sounds like she is saying "Hellooooo" when no one is in the room with her and she is lonely. It's cute to us that we actually sneak up and take videos of her when she does it (video below). It's cute and funny when we aren't around, but what about when she does it during the night when you're trying to sleep? Some separation anxiety behaviors we let our pets get away with initially may become an annoyance or frustration and need to be addressed. Separation anxiety can start small and escalate and it can develop suddenly due to changes in circumstances. Let's start with understanding how it develops and then I will offer ways to address it.
What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is usually frantic, distressed and often destructive behaviors pets exhibit when separated from their pet parents. It can last for a few minutes to an hour or more. Pet parents often think separation anxiety for is their pet being spiteful or getting revenge, but dogs are actually simply distressed and upset because of their parent’s absence.
Signs of Separation Anxiety
Salivating, barking, howling, panting, trembling and pacing are some physical signs. Behavioral signs include ignoring food, coprophagia, destroying furniture and bedding and other items around the home. If they are closed into a crate or room within the home, they may destroy the crate, walls and flooring. For cats it may include more excessive vocalization (crying, moaning, meowing), eliminating (urinating or defecating) outside the litter box and other inappropriate places, not eating or drinking while you are away,
excessive self-grooming, vomiting (with food or hair often contained in the vomit), exuberant greetings when you return home and destructive behavior.
Causes of Separation Anxiety
One of the causes of separation anxiety may be changes in pet parents or homes, even if it is temporary. This is why many pet parents prefer to have a pet sitter come into their home rather than taking pets to the kennel if they cannot go on vacations or trips. Even visiting a relative in a new location can cause significant stress in your pet. It can also be caused by new socialization patterns, changes in surroundings, neglect, long vacations, lack of training, premature adoption, death of a pet friend, heredity behavior, genetics or simply boredom.
How to Prevent Separation Anxiety
You can actually prevent your dog or cat from becoming anxious and developing separation anxiety, which is much easier than trying to break them of the reactivity and bad behaviors after they already exhibit it.
1. Socialization and Behavior Training. If you socialize your pet with people they are not as stressed by other people and pets coming and going in their environment. Of course a certain amount of calm and consistency is important to cats and dogs as well, so having a well balanced home environment is important.
Training gives them a set of rules which they like, whether it is consistent times and places for them to pee and poop or knowing how and when they will be fed as well as sitting, coming when you call and other behaviors you expect from them. All of these will give your pet confidence and help to prevent separation anxiety. Additionally, you can slowly train them to be left alone for longer periods of time by only leaving for an hour at first, then after a week or two increase it to 4 hours and after another week or two, increase it to 6-8 hours.
2. Downplay Leaving Home and Coming Home. Don't hug and kiss and talk baby talk or act sad to leave your pet. These behaviors on your part, create stress for your pet when you leave. Either make it a happy event by giving them a toy or treat and just walk out the door, or ignore them completely when you leave. Food toys like Kong and puzzle feeders are great treats to use when you leave. When you come home, the same rules apply. It is fun to see your dog so excited to see you that he jumps all around or for your cat to come rub against you whining for your attention, but it teaches them to behave badly when people arrive and makes them anxious for your return. Always require your pet to be calm before giving them attention.
3. Exercise or Play Before Departure. Exercising and/or playing with your dog or cat least 30 minutes before departure will relax them and help them to sleep when you leave.
4. Don’t Leave Your Pet Alone for Too Long! This is probably more important for dogs than cats, but your cat would also like to see you sooner rather than later. If you need to be away for longer than 6-8 hours, consider getting someone to come to your home and let them out or play with them some time during the day, or arrange for doggy daycare if you have a very active dog. If you are crating your dog, they really should not be in a crate for more than 4 hours at a time; boredom alone will cause behavioral issues.
5. Crate Training. Train your pet to be in a crate or cozy space where they are comfortable with the door open. This gives them a safe quiet space away from anything causing them anxiety. Cats love cubbyholes and even just cardboard boxes. Dogs learn to love their crates if you feed them treats or meals in the crate. Make their space cozy and secure with soft bedding material. You may even want to leave something like an old sweatshirt with your scent on it to reassure them.
6. Use a Pet Monitoring System. You can monitor your pet through a pet camera only, or a pet camera with a treat dispenser system. If your pet is doing something like howling or chewing on furniture, you can try telling them to stop using the camera microphone. Just be careful with this one; some dogs may be more reactive if they hear your voice and get excited thinking you are at home. If you use the camera with treat dispenser, you can reward good behavior, like not barking, howling or chewing and you may or may not want to tell them "Good Boy".
How to Stop Separation Anxiety
The good news is that all of the action steps above used to prevent separation anxiety will also work to stop separation anxiety, but here are a few more additional suggestions for you once they are already exhibiting it.
1. Change Your “Going Away” Signals
Whatever you were doing before, if your pet gets upset when you leave, you will want to change that behavior now to ease their anxiety stop their reactivity. Try using a different door, don't take out your keys until you are out the door, leave your purse in a different location. The goal is to break your pet's association of these actions with your departure and not let them trigger separation anxiety. When you leave, give your pet a treat or a toy to play with to distract them. You may even want to hide treats around the house so they can hunt them while you're away. Just remember if you have multiple dogs, leaving treats when you are gone may result in aggression between them, so it is not recommended for multiple dogs. If you were hugging or petting them when you leave or talking to them, stop doing that behavior and quietly leave or at the most, just say, "Good boy Rocky." and go.
2. Create Personal Space for Your Pet. This is always a good option for your pet. If you give your pet a comfort space that they always go to it teaches them to enjoy having their own space and be independent of you and keeps them from being too "clingy". It will also give them a safe place to go to when they are anxious or when you’re away. This can be their crate and it can also be another space where you have a dog bed that they love. It is okay to have more than one comfort space. It may also help to give them a clothing item with your scent on it in their comfort space to assure them them you will return.
3. Crating, Shutting them in a Room or Plan C. If your pet is not already trained to be in a crate, comfortably with the door open and you have been crating your pet because of separation anxiety, it is possible, but will be difficult to turn the crate into a safe place for them when you leave. You can start by feeding them in the crate with the door open. If your pet has destroyed doors, walls or flooring when shut into a room, work on the other recommendations and work toward stopping that. When your pet has anxiety, making their space to move around in smaller often just increases their anxiety, especially if they haven't been exercised. Consider giving them more exercise and more space. If it's a dog, can you give them a doggie door into a fenced yard so they can get out and get exercise? If it's a cat, can you add play towers, shelves and toys to occupy their time and give them exercise? Plan C is giving more space that allows more activity to release anxiety, working in conjunction with the other suggestions presented here. Another possible Plan C can be to get your pet a companion. There is no way to cover the pro's and con's of this option here in this space and it deserves it's own entire article, but suffice it to say that if your pet is pet focused more than people focused it can be a great option to eliminate anxiety to get them a pet partner. Just be sure you aren't getting double the trouble!
4. Background Noise or Music
Soothing music or leaving on the TV can help your pet relax and fall asleep. This can work well also if you have dogs that react to outside noises by barking. The TV or music will cover up other noises and reduce or eliminate reactive barking.
5. Natural Anxiety Treatments. There are scents and oils that are advertised to help calm pets. There is also the "Thundershirt" or variations on swaddling type of pet clothing to ease anxiety. The reports on effectiveness vary and it's recommended you read reviews on any of these products. If you use these methods, it will be more effective if you can begin using them at least 15-30 minutes before you get ready to leave.
To treat very severe separation anxiety in pets, you may have to consider calming medicine. Contact your veterinarian to discuss your options. This should be a last resort since medications only sedate the pet temporarily and they do not address the underlying cause or behaviors. If you use medication, it should be in conjunction with other recommendations above to change their reactivity and behavior.
If you have a specific situation that you would like help with handling, please reach out to us via email at email@example.com or call our helpline at (888) 355-7091 extension 0.