What to do about pet separation anxiety after COVID-19

If you’re heading back to work, your pet could experience separation anxiety with their newfound solitude. Here are a few tips to help your pet during the transition (and pet insurance is one of them)

By ATB Financial 13 September 2021 5 min read

Woman on floor with dog looking at laptop

If you welcomed a furry friend into your family over the past two years, you wouldn’t be alone. Based on a study by Narrative Research, 18 per cent of current Canadian pet owners have brought a pet into their family since March 2020. That means that one in five pet owners in Canada has become a new dog/cat/fish parent during that time, as more than half of Canadians have a pet in their household.

Whether you're more of a cat or dog person (or can’t get enough of either), there’s been a lingering question on most pet owner’s minds: will my pet suffer from separation anxiety when I head back to work? 

It’s a hard question to answer, so we reached out to Dr. Becky Whittle, Owner Veterinarian at Cochrane Animal Clinic, to get some good advice.


What is pet separation anxiety?

Let’s start with the basics. What is pet separation anxiety?

Dr. Whittle explains pet separation as distress related to being separated from a person (or animal) that your pet is highly attached to. This can be expressed in many ways, she explains, including vocalization (barking or crying), house-soiling, destroying furniture, pacing and more. 


What causes pet separation anxiety?

When it comes to causes, Dr. Whittle shares that every pet is different, and it will vary case by case. The important thing is to recognize that sometimes there’s a medical condition that’s driving the anxiety, and finding that out should be a pet owner's first step.


Tips for preventing pet separation anxiety at home

So you’re looking to prevent separation anxiety before it happens. Good for you! Here are some tips to help you out along the way. 


1. Pick the right breed for your lifestyle

Certain dog breeds, like Huskies, require a lot of exercise, large spaces to run around and don’t do well with being alone for long periods of time. Whereas French Bulldogs require relatively little exercise, are ideal for apartment life and tend to fare better when left alone. Be realistic about your lifestyle including activity level, home size and work situation before selecting a dog breed to prevent separation anxiety.


2. Socialize your pet as soon as possible

A pet who’s been positively exposed to different experiences when they’re young is less likely to suffer from separation anxiety. The best time to socialize your dog is when they’re between 7–16 weeks old. During this time, their brains are like sponges and what they experience will shape their future behavior.


3. Create a calming sensory experience

Playing classical or soft rock music quietly in the background or getting a white noise machine soothes the senses. Using pet-safe lavender essential oils on your pet’s bed or even in their collar can bring a sense of calm. 


4. Create a safe confinement zone or crate train

Crate training can prevent a ton of headaches when you’re not at home and save your carpet and furniture from destruction. Plus when done right, dogs see their crate as their safe space. If you don’t feel comfortable leaving your dog in their crate all day, try placing the crate in a small room or gated space with the door open. Make sure your dog has a comfortable sleeping space, access to plenty of water, safe dog toys and a designated area with pee pads if needed.


5. Introduce your pet to being alone

Slowly introduce quiet time apart from your pet throughout the day, even if you’re at home. You can try crating your dog, placing their sleeping mat across the room from where the humans are or even training them to sit away from you. 

Try implementing short absences where you leave the house as well, like going to the mailbox or taking out the trash. Before you head out the door, give your pet a super special treat, like a long-lasting food toy. Try to come back the first few times before they finish, and immediately take the toy away. Gradually increase the time you’re away, and your dog may learn to associate something positive with your absence.


6. Keep your arrivals calm

When you return from your outings, keep your arrival low-key. We know you’re excited to see your pet (and you should be!), but getting your pet overexcited when you come home doesn’t help in separation anxiety prevention. 


What to do if your pet is suffering from separation anxiety

Feeling overwhelmed, frustrated and sad for your furry friend? Dr. Whittle has recommendations to help you navigate and treat your pet’s separation anxiety. 

Counter-conditioning is important: reinforce positive behaviour by providing your pet a safe space within the home and rewarding them when they’re calm and relaxed.

Desensitize your pet to departure cues: Desensitize your pet to departure cues at non-routine times of the day. Grab your purse then go make a snack. Put on your shoes and go sit on the couch. Try leaving through the front door and come back through the back door right away. After a while, these departure cues become less predictable and anxiety inducing for your pet. 

Ask your vet about medications and supplements: your veterinarian can prescribe medications or supplements to help reduce your pet’s anxiety response.

Provide environmental enrichment: food puzzles, relaxing music and pet-friendly essential oils don’t just prevent pet separation anxiety, they also can play a crucial role in treatment.

Give doggie-daycare a try: not only does this socialize your dog, but doggie-daycare can prevent your pet from getting lonely and missing you throughout the day.

Get enough exercise: exercise, and in some cases agility work, can help keep your dog mentally stimulated and reduce anxiety.


Did you know pet insurance may cover behavioural therapy? 

If not, you’re not the only one. Many pet owners assume that vet visits are for emergencies only, but if your dog (or cat) is showing signs of separation anxiety make sure you reach out to your veterinarian. Dr. Whittle says the sooner, the better. “It’s important to rule out or treat any medical causes driving the behaviour right away,” Dr. Whittle shares. “Early interventions can result in a better prognosis for resolution of the anxiety, or at least reduction.” 

Your pet might benefit from calming supplements, prescription medication or a custom treatment plan to help them manage their anxiety. Dr. Whittle recommends booking an appointment with your veterinarian to create the best plan for your pet.

If you’re worried about wracking up vet bills, pet insurance can help ease your mind. Check with your pet insurance provider. They may not only cover accidents, illnesses, dental, medical devices and alternative treatments, it may provide coverage for behavioural therapy as well, including treatment for separation anxiety. 

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