Dealing with Back-to-School Separation Anxiety: Tips for Pet Owners

Dealing with back-to-school separation anxiety 

I’m a vet nurse and here’s what you should know as a pet owner

With the summer holidays ending, kids heading back to school and everyone resuming the usual routines, it’s easy to forget this can be an unsettling and worrying time for our pets.

After everyone spending more time at home and heading out on adventures together, suddenly returning to ‘normal’ life may be a shock to your pets. Having less company around might be lonely for them and can lead to separation-related problems.

PDSA Vet Nurse Nina Downing explains: “Separation anxiety is sadly common – in the PDSA Animal Wellbeing (PAW) Report 2023, 13% of owners (1.4 million dogs) reported their dog was showing signs of distress when left alone*.

“It can lead pets to feel panicked, frightened, frustrated, and stressed when left alone or separated from their owner. This generally occurs when pets are completely alone, but some become anxious when a particular person leaves, even if there are other people around to keep them company.

“Separation anxiety can range from mild to very severe, and can have a huge impact on a pet’s and owner’s life.

“The good news is that with time, patience, and the right training, most cases can be successfully managed, helping your pet to feel comfortable being alone, and improving their quality of life.”

Why does my pet have separation anxiety?

“Separation anxiety can occur for many reasons,” Nina adds. “Genetics and personality play a part, but experiences do as well. If your pet isn’t used to being left alone or away from a particular person or if something scary happens while they are alone such as a thunderstorm, they can develop anxiety.

“Pain or other underlying medical reasons can also cause your pet to become fearful of being alone, so always get them checked over by your vet if they show signs of separation anxiety.

Other contributors to separation anxiety include:

  • Poor socialisation when young
  • Changes in your home or routine (builders, moving house or job)
  • Changes to your household; bereavement or other circumstances meaning a person or pet is no longer around
  • Boredom

What are the common symptoms of a separation anxiety problem?

“Pets are individuals, so the signs of a separation anxiety problem can vary. Any of these behaviours may be an indicator your pet is struggling: barking, whining or howling, excessive drooling, toileting inside, trembling, destructive behaviour, chewing excessively and panting.”

Nina added “Some pets show signs which are obvious to their owner when they return home such as toileting, or destroying items. However, others only show signs of a problem when their owners aren’t around and appear perfectly fine as soon as they return. If you are unsure whether your pet has a separation problem, consider using a camera to see what they get up to when left, or ask a neighbour if they’ve noticed anything while you’re out.

What should I do if my pet has separation anxiety?

“Help your pet by easing them back into their normal routine whilst you are still enjoying the holiday. Leave them alone while you go out for a short trip or spend time in another room. Gradually build up the amount of time your pet is spending alone until they’re ready for your normal routine. Remember, dogs should never be left alone for more than four hours.

“Make sure dogs have a good walk before you leave them, and all pets will appreciate an enrichment activity or interactive toys, to help keep them occupied and settled while you’re away. Puzzle toys are a great way to keep your pet focussed and some appreciate the radio being left on, so the house isn’t so quiet.

“Teaching your pet to cope with being left alone is really important and for them, being able to predict when they will be left alone is key. Routines therefore are essential, but this takes time and patience and you may need the help of a certified animal behaviourist to guide you.

“In moderate to severe cases of separation anxiety, medication alongside training to help manage your pet’s emotions is often necessary. Your vet and behaviourist will be able to guide you on options for your pet, if medications are necessary.”

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