Sunday, September 24, 2006

Pet Separation Anxiety - Destructive Behavior

Once again, a new school year begins. Consequently, some parents are dealing with separation anxiety issues with their children. And, with busier school and activity schedules, it’s also the time when pet parents may begin to notice separation anxiety symptoms in their companion animals, too.

The most common definition of separation anxiety is that when left alone, your pet exhibits destructive behaviors. There are differences of opinion among pet professionals regarding the diagnosis and treatment of this complex behavioral issue, but all are trying to achieve the same result – the reduction and/or elimination of these destructive and harmful behaviors. The information presented here is intended to help you identify whether your companion animal might be suffering from your absence, and to provide some idea of available treatment options.

Although more common in canines, separation anxiety can be exhibited in both dogs and cats. In dogs, the destructive behaviors can include: constant barking; destroying furniture; chewing doors or the walls; ripping apart books; urinating and/or defecating in the house; and self-abuse (like chewing their paws raw). In cats, separation anxiety manifests itself in any of the following ways: indoor spraying; urinating or defecating in closets or on clothes; refusing to eat or drink; and hiding from you when you are at home.

Professionals attribute separation anxiety to a wide array of internal or external causes, or a combination of both. External causes range from changes in the environment, a lack of exercise or stimulation, and changes in behavior of the pet parents. Internal causes can include illness, persistent pain, nervousness, being in season and negative physiological changes due to poor diet.

To determine whether your companion animal might be suffering from separation anxiety, ask yourself these questions:

• Does your pet exhibit unusual behavior when you are getting ready to leave the home?

• Does the destructive behavior occur only when you are not at home?

• Does your pet greet you frantically, following closely wherever you go when you are home?

If all of these are true for your pet, you could be dealing with separation anxiety.

Once you have established that your companion might be experiencing separation anxiety, it’s critical that you are aware of the following:

• Do not punish your pet when you arrive home and discover the damage – this will only aggravate the problem.

• Do not bring another pet into your home. Introducing another being at this time will only add additional stress. Although it seems logical (i.e., your anxious pet will now have a companion), the separation anxiety is due to your absence.

• Do not make a big production out of leaving or entering your home. There is strong support for a relationship between your displays of heightened emotion at these times and the destructive behavior of your companion animal.

There are numerous training techniques that can help you deal with this pressing issue. These usually incorporate desensitization strategies as well as changes in your own behavior. We advise consulting a professional trainer or animal behaviorist for the best way to deal with your unique situation.

As with all training, affecting behavioral changes takes time. Here are some short-term solutions that can help to alleviate these symptoms while you are away from home.

• Have a friend or relative care for your pet.
• Place your pet in a day care facility.
• Bring your pet to work.

If none of these options are available to you, there are other stress reducers you can try on your own. When leaving your home, give your dog a toy (be sure it’s one that’s safe for him or her to have without supervision) like a treat ball – this will keep your dog occupied and provide a source of pleasure and gratification that your dog will learn to associate with your absence. For cats, make sure they have unobstructed views through windows, use a water fountain, play soft music or a DVD with birds and butterflies to engage their attention. For both dogs and cats, try leaving a pillowcase or a recently-worn article of clothing in an area where they commonly stay – just the smell of you may bring them some comfort.

The time you spend now addressing this issue could save you and your companion animal grief and distress in the future. If you suspect that your companion animal is experiencing separation anxiety, we strongly recommend you speak with your vet and a trainer with whom you feel comfortable. With patience, persistence and a lot of love, you can help your pet overcome this syndrome.

This article was taken from the Healthy Pet Newsletter, a free monthly email newsletter.

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