Separation anxiety in pets likely to rise as people return to work


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – With the country seeming to return to pre-COVID work routines, many people will be returning to the office, leaving their pet alone for the first time in a year. Every pet will react differently, but Dr. Jeff Nichol, New Mexico’s only veterinary pet behavior specialist, said there are telltale signs owners can look out for if they think their pet has separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety can reveal itself in major behavior changes like excessive barking, trying to escape and destroying everything in sight. More subtle signs are pacing, licking their lips and scanning the room excessively when their owner is getting ready to leave. If your pet is only exhibiting these negative behaviors when you’re away, Dr. Nichol says that’s a clear clue they might have separation anxiety.

Nichol emphasized that what he never teaches pet owners to do is punish the pet in these circumstances, as it causes even more anxiety in the pet who is then less likely to retain what the owner is trying to teach. “That kind of stuff does no good at all, and usually worsens the problem,” Nichol said. “It’s hard to do, but ignoring the damage is actually helping the dog abandon the problem.”

If pet owners are anticipating going back to work, Dr. Nichol suggests leaving the house for small increments of time and gradually make them longer as a way to help their pets adapt to the change little by little. Owners should stick to their normal order of things like putting their shoes on before they leave and grab the keys.

The next best thing you can do for your pet is keep them busy while you’re away. Dr. Nichol suggests freezing food or treats inside a toy or simply using food in such a way that it can keep the pet busy for longer periods of time. “If this dog is kept occupied, engaged in a natural canine survival activity, then they don’t have to think about wringing their little paws like ‘Oh my goodness I’m home alone again, what do I do?’ They’ve got something really important to do,” Nichol said.

Owners can give their pet the food toy right before they leave for work and pick it up when they get home. Keeping the routine is also important, even on the weekend. “You want your dog to associated being home alone with opportunities to survive,” Nichol said. “Dogs are supposed to be focused on surviving, and they’re not wired to spend their day trying to figure out what to do with their time.”

In more severe cases, Dr. Nichol said anti-anxiety medication can be used. “One of the most common misconceptions about anti-anxiety medication is that they’re tranquilizers, but they’re not,” Dr. Nichol said. “Modern medicine is way beyond that and we are well-educated on how they work, when to use them, how to dose them, how to avoid side-effects and how to do this safely.”

Dr. Nichol has come across owners who cannot afford the damage caused by leaving their pet home alone, so they crate their pet all day. Nichol said this isn’t something he recommends doing if the pet has social anxiety, because they pet can hurt itself while trying to escape, thus causing more vet bills to pile up. “We don’t incarcerate a panicked pet. In these situations, these pets should stay at a doggie daycare service until our behavior modifications and treatments can help get these things controlled for the good of the pet and their owner,” Nichol said. “We have what it takes to make a difference in almost all cases. In most cases, if the pet parent is willing to invest themselves in helping us work with these, we get pretty good results.”

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