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What is Separation Anxiety and how can it be managed?

March is Pet Anxiety Month so I thought I’d discuss this condition which affects many pets, particularly since the boom in pet acquisitions since Covid. There are many things that can make a pet anxious but there are a lot of common misconceptions about the condition too.

Separation anxiety occurs when a pet (usually dog) does not cope with being left alone for periods of time and becomes extremely anxious and distressed when the owner leaves them. In extreme cases they can cause a lot of damage to furniture or themselves in their efforts to escape and reunite with their owner. I don’t remember it being much of a problem when I first qualified but it has become very common. All those ‘lockdown puppies’ which were acquired when their owners were furloughed or working from home didn’t experience time alone in their formative months, socialisation opportunities were limited as dog training and puppy classes closed down and as a result they came to depend on their owner’s presence as, in their mind, essential for survival. This can be very difficult for owners to deal with if they have no choice but to leave their pet at home, it can cause problems with the neighbours if their dog is howling and whining all day too. But the good news is that with the right approach and some commitment it is also a very treatable condition. Here are some simple steps to take if you suspect your dog has separation anxiety:

  1. Set up a camera to observe their normal behaviour during alone time (if they are unused to being left alone, limit the first few outings to 5-20 minutes until you know how they react).

  2. Observe if your dog shows any signs of distress during this time.

  3. Practise brief absences even for dogs who are coping well, just to strengthen their alone-time ‘muscle’.

  4. Use doggy day care settings or dog walkers to break up your dog’s day while you are out.

  5. Focus on engaging your dog in mental tasks when you are at home, such as games, activity toys and trick learning - these are important for all dogs’ mental wellbeing.

If you are worried about your pet’s ability to cope with being left alone please speak to your veterinary team for some professional advice.

And in case you're wondering, yes, acupuncture can help with anxiety too - via release of endorphins (the body's own 'morphine') and direct effects on parts of the brain which control mood and emotions - there is more in these papers if you're interested: Dhond et al (2008b) Pain 136 (6) 679-688; Hui et al (2000) Hum. Brain Mapp. 30(1) 38-46

(photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash)

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