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All you need to know if you plan to leave your pet home alone

The most typical sign of separation anxiety is destructive behaviour—pets may even try to break out of kennels

Destructive behaviour is a sign of separation anxiety. (iStockphoto)

By Dr Nameeta Nadkarni

LAST PUBLISHED 23.03.2023  |  01:15 PM IST

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During the pandemic, you adopted a puppy. It is now a three-year-old dog. You have to stop working from home and start commuting to the office every day. Every time you go back home, though, you discover that your well-behaved dog has damaged your walls or chewed up a piece of furniture.

These are symptoms of separation anxiety.

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According to a 2020 study by the University of Lincoln, 23-55% of dogs in the UK exhibited behaviour connected to separation. These numbers are believed have risen since the pandemic. Dogs and cats frequently experience separation anxiety that can result in negative behaviour, excessive barking or meowing, and even physical symptoms like vomiting or diarrhoea. While destructive behaviour is the most typical sign of separation anxiety, pets may also try to break out of their kennels, crates, or through windows or doors, to get to their owner.

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There are less obvious indicators too. For instance, a pet could become excessively needy or clingy. As you are getting ready to leave the house, they could pace or whine in nervousness or distress. Some may drool or pant excessively. Other self-destructive habits include licking or gnawing on their paws or skin.

Not all pets suffering from separation anxiety will exhibit all these symptoms. Some might have one-two symptoms, while others might display several, all at once. For, separation anxiety can range from mild to severe.

A common cause of separation anxiety is a lack of socialisation or training. This is especially true for animals who have been adopted from shelters or rescue groups because they might have previously been subjected to abuse or abandonment.

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Changes in routine or the environment can also play a factor. When their routine is disturbed, pets who have grown accustomed to a setting or living arrangement may become uncomfortable or stressed. This can include relocating to a new home, changes in the owner’s work schedule, or the addition of a new family member or pet.

It’s crucial to remember that the behaviour of a pet could also be affected by the pet parent’s excessive dependence on, or attachment for, the animal or by their own high degree of anxiety. Excessive attention or reassurance to a pet can actually serve to increase rather than decrease the animal’s anxiety. Because owners may unknowingly increase their pets’ dependence on them by treating them like human babies, anthropomorphism of this kind might worsen separation anxiety.

If you think your pet is suffering from separation anxiety, consult a veterinarian or an animal behaviourist. They will identify the cause and suggest a course of treatment.

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Treatment for separation anxiety often involves behaviour modification. Introducing your pet gradually to staying alone can help reduce separation anxiety. or instance, increasing their alone time over several weeks, starting with brief intervals. Training your new puppy from an early age to feel at ease in their own company will go a long way. Toys or other distractions can also help to keep them occupied them and calm them.

Create a schedule for your pet, like giving food and exercise at regular intervals through the day, as well as a special place to rest/unwind when you are not home.

Some pet owners have had luck calming their pets using natural therapies like aromatherapy or massage. One cat owner discovered that playing calming music and using a diffuser with lavender aroma reduced their cat’s nervousness. Allopathic anti-anxiety medication may be helpful in pets with severe anxiety.

Every pet may require a different approach. The best chance of addressing separation-related behaviour is through a regimen of systematic “desensitisation", sometimes in conjunction with medication.

Nameeta Nadkarni is a practising veterinary soft tissue surgeon and pet blogger from Mumbai.