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What you can do now to help prevent separation anxiety

We’ve all seen the jokes about how our dogs are tired of being walked, and our cats want us out of the house and back at work. While these are largely untrue (we have to believe that our pets love this extra time with us!), there is some truth to the confusion that our pets are experiencing with stay-at-home and social distancing measures in place. Hey, even humans are confused!

“Our pets are social creatures. It’s no wonder they can suffer when separated from us,” said Marissa Martino, Community Liaison and former Behavior Manager for the Dumb Friends League. “Treating separation anxiety can be challenging, however, there are many resources available to the pet parents.”

You can take action now to help minimize the stress your pet will likely experience as your schedule continues to change. With a little planning and consideration today, our hope is that you can prevent and reduce any separation anxiety related problems and set your pets up to successfully cope when your regular routine resumes.

Here are a few easy things you can do to help your pets navigate these transitions:

Dogs: One of the main risk factors for separation anxiety is a change in routine. To best set our dogs up for success, you should:

  1. Leave your dog alone multiple times per week – go for a walk (without your dog!), call a friend while enjoying some sun, or read a book in a separate room.
    • The most important thing is to leave your dog alone only as for long as they are comfortable. This might be 10 minutes, or it could be an hour. Do what works for you and your dog. For example, if your dog begins to experience distress like barking, whining or pacing at 20 minutes, only leave them alone for 15 minutes and gradually work toward 20. If you’re concerned about your dog getting into mischief, or you’re unsure of their comfort level when left alone, monitor them while you are away with technology like Furbo, Zoom or Facetime.
    • Signs your dog is okay being left alone:
      Relaxed body postures, sleeping, eating treats you left behind, drinking water, self-play
      What to do:
      Continue leaving your dog home alone frequently in the hopes that they will continue to be comfortable with absences.
    • Signs your dog is feeling stressed:
      Pacing, whining, howling, barking, accidents in the house (only when you are away), destruction near exits and entrances, inability to settle, self-injury.
      What to do:
      Avoid leaving them home alone for a length of time that would elicit this response and seek help from a professional, certified, force-free trainer.
    • Set up a “fun-zone” for your dog in another area, but be sure it’s separate from you. The fun zone might include items like Kongs, bully sticks, Nose Work hides, snuffle mats, etc. You want them to know that many fun things can be enjoyed even without you there!
    • Invest in some sturdy doggie food puzzles! Food puzzles help dogs burn energy, exercise their minds, boost their independence and can even slow down chow hounds.

Cats: Despite their reputations for being aloof, cats are social pets, which means they can experience separation anxiety. For this reason, we’d recommend a similar approach to that listed above for dogs.

  1. Time alone daily, even just while the family takes a short walk.
  2. Give your kitty fun activities they can do alone:
    • Furry mice, foam balls, feathered objects and other toys can be left out for your cat to find. Some cats even enjoy food and treat puzzles! For best results, collect a variety of toys and rotate them often. Don’t forget to try some with catnip!
  3. Provide hiding places! These can be cardboard boxes, tunnels, or play cubes. Consider installing cat shelves, a new tower, or a seat with a window view. As an added bonus, install a bird feeder outside the window for non-stop entertainment!
  4. Engage your cat’s problem solving and hunting skills with puzzle toys, like a rolling cat feeder or an activity center. These tools are a great way to slow down enthusiastic eaters and keep your cat entertained!
  5. Make sure there are ample “legal” scratching outlets. Scratching is a healthy way for cats to release energy and display natural behavior. Make sure the scratch opportunities you are providing are sturdy, tall, and a material that your cat enjoys scratching. Kitty will be extra happy if you add catnip! There are many homemade options!

“With so many families adding new pets to their home and spending more than normal amounts of time with their animals right now (yay!), it is our hope that armed with this knowledge, you can proactively set your animals up for success for the long-term,” said Allison Hartlage, Manager of Animal Training and Behavior at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley. “Our community of animal welfare and behavior professionals are so eager to support you.”

If your pets already experience discomfort when left alone or if you need additional support, we are here to help. You can make an appointment to speak with one of our behavior specialists through the Dumb Friends League Behavior Helpline. It is a free resource available to all pet owners, regardless of where or how you acquired your pet. Additionally, we have a wealth of behavior resources available on our website.

Remember: you are not alone! There are expert behavior support resources across Colorado that can assist you and your pets.

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