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How to reduce separation anxiety in pets

Heading back to the office? Here’s how to keep your pet happy at home while you’re away

By Esther Shaw

Updated: 15 November 2021

Owner holding dog

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Many people took on a new pet during the pandemic, some because they had more time at home to devote to a dog or cat, and others to get some company during the long days of lockdown.

Figures from the Pet Food Manufacturers' Association (PFMA) suggest that a huge 3.2 million households acquired a pet since the start of Covid, meaning the country now has 17 million pet-owning homes.

During lockdown, our pets got used to having us around – and accustomed to lots of extra treats and cuddles.

As a result, many cats, dogs and other animals became very bonded and attached to their owners.

Pets no longer have their owners around all day

But now, with more and more offices and workplaces opening up as things start to return to ‘normal,’ pets and people will be separated once again. Some animals could find themselves left alone for long periods and could end up feeling anxious and unsettled.

Pets taken on during lockdown, such as rescue dogs or young puppies or kittens, could suffer the most severely, as they may never have experienced prolonged periods away from their owners.

Equally, the transition from constant company to much less – or no – company is a big one for any creature.

Here we take a closer look at how to spot separation anxiety, and the steps you can take to help your pet cope with the adjustment back to working from the office.

What is separation anxiety?

This is a very challenging behaviour disorder – particularly for dogs – and is one that is hard to overcome.

Some animals may only display mild signs of emotional anxiety, while others can experience full-blown panic attacks when left alone.

Warning signs to watch out for

  • Excessive barking, howling, meowing or crying
  • Changes in eating habits – with your pet potentially eating too fast, or not eating enough and losing weight
  • Your pet starting to display unsettled behaviour when you get ready to go to work, and reacting badly when you put your shoes or coat on or pick up your keys
  • This could include your animal digging, scratching, ripping things up, chewing furniture – or trying to escape from an enclosure
  • It could also include them toileting in an out-of-character kind of way – perhaps in the house when they usually toilet outside. Vomiting and diarrhoea should also send the alarm bells ringing
  • More subtle signs include pacing, panting and standing by doors

How to help your pet cope

As a pet owner, you want to work towards a point where your pet can be left on its own for a few hours at a time. You need to focus on building independence and confidence, to reduce needy behaviours.

Don’t wait until your first day back: start acclimatising your animal now.

  • Create a safe and familiar place with a bed and toys. Take your animal there regularly to show them it’s a happy place to be. Try enclosing your pet in this area, perhaps behind a pet gate, while you go to another room in the house, then come back. Keep repeating this for a few minutes at a time and gradually increase the time you spend away
  • Try going outside your front door without your dog, or even for a short walk around the block. Without your constant presence, your dog will start growing more confident about being on its own. Build this up slowly until your pet is content alone for longer periods, and feels safe that you will come back
  • Consistency is key. Build a routine and stick to it. A fixed schedule – adapted to your new working routines – helps your dog know what will happen next, and can help to reduce stress
  • Change your ‘leaving the house’ signals. Try putting your coat on, but not leaving for 15 minutes, or try leaving your keys in a different place from normal. The aim is to break your pet’s association of these actions with your departure – to try and avoid triggering separation anxiety
  • Keep fuss to a minimum when you do leave the house. This can help reassure your pet that there’s nothing to worry about. When you come home, wait until your dog is calm, and then greet him calmly
  • Give pets lots of exercise. Before leaving your dog on its own, make sure it’s run off some energy. The idea is to leave your dog in resting mode while you’re away
  • Giving your dog something to chew on when you’re leaving the house can help calm them down. Alternatively, give them another special treat or a toy to play with. Hide treats around the house to give your pet something to do while you’re out
  • Think about leaving an item of clothing with your scent on it, as this can be comforting for an anxious creature
  • Keeping the TV or radio on when you leave the house can be a good way to soothe your pet. It can also help to drown out any outside noises which might frighten your cat or dog
  • Don’t shout. Resist the urge to get cross with your dog, even if it’s chewed the furniture or soiled indoors. Remind yourself that they are only exhibiting these behaviours out of fear over being left alone. You don’t want to exacerbate your pet’s anxiety

What else can I do?

It might feel a little extreme, but you could consider setting up an in-home camera so you can keep an eye on your pet during the day and observe their behaviour.

Alternatively, get help from friends, family members or a trusted neighbour who can pop over and check in on your pet. Dog walkers and pet-sitters can also be a real help as you return to the office.

A further option is to see if you can bring your pet to work with you. If there’s no policy currently in place, speak to your workplace to see if it’s something that could be considered.

If you are worried about your pet’s behaviour, speak to your vet for advice and support. 

Does pet insurance cover anxiety and behavioural issues?

If your pet does suffer from separation anxiety, they may display some behavioural issues, such as those set out here. These can become quite destructive, not only to your pet, but also to your home.

Generally speaking, pet insurance does not cover behavioural issues or routine visits to the vet.

A pet policy is designed as a safety net to protect you against unexpected costs relating to your pet. You claim on this cover when your animal needs medical treatment from a vet due to accident or illness.

If in doubt about what is and isn’t covered, read the Ts and Cs – or speak to your insurer.

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