Will 2021 produce a bumper crop of pets with separation anxiety? Experts share tips on how to help prevent it
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Separation anxiety affects about 15% of dogs, and other animals aren’t immune. Cats, birds, bunnies and other pets can experience it as well.
And now that more people are receiving COVID-19 vaccinations and may begin to return to offices, school, travel or just being away from home more often, the big question for pet lovers is whether their animals -- especially young ones who don’t know anything different -- will become anxious about being home alone after a year of 24/7 human companionship.
“Some puppies have probably never been alone for more than an hour or two while the owners went to the grocery store,” says Minnesota dog trainer Denise Nord. “Being alone and possibly crated is a skill we need to teach our dogs.”
See if your pet shows signs of separation anxiety when you’re away. For dogs, that can mean barking or whining, scratching at doors or windows, or other destructive behavior. Birds vocalize or toss items around in their cage. Cats may urinate not just outside the litter box, but on their person’s clothes or bedding -- an attempt to soothe themselves by mingling their own scent with that of their favorite human. Set up a pet cam to see what, where and when certain behaviors are occurring.
Start now to prepare pets for being on their own more often or for longer periods. Begin by tweaking your pet’s expectations.
“Separate all the signals that you’re leaving from your actual departure,” says behavior consultant Alice Moon-Fanelli, Ph.D.
Dress as if you’re going out -- trust us, your dog or cat knows the difference between sweats and work clothes -- and then work at home as usual. Other “leaving” cues to normalize include picking up keys and then setting them down in another room, grabbing your purse and walking around with it but not going anywhere, and putting on your shoes but not leaving the house.
Then begin to gradually accustom your pet to your absence.
“Start going out for short periods of time, such as five to 15 minutes, and coming back in,” says behavior specialist Wailani Sung, DVM, director of behavior and welfare programs at San Francisco SPCA. “Leave tasty treats or puzzle toys for pets to work on. Over the course of a week, do two to three short absences, and then gradually increase the length of time you’re gone.”
Absences can include taking something out to the car or going for a walk without your dog. When you come back in, whether you were gone for one minute or one hour, go about your normal routine, keeping interactions with pets calm and quiet.
Think ahead and introduce puzzle toys before your schedule changes. Your dog, cat or bird should already be familiar with them by the time you head back to the office.
Create a new routine. Nord suggests taking your dog for a walk or other exercise in the morning before you leave so he’s ready to settle down with a puzzle toy or take a nap by the time you go. If you can, come home at lunchtime to take him out, hire a pet sitter or dog walker to come by, or schedule a dog daycare visit.
Schedule kitty playtime or bird interactions the same way. Leave treat balls filled with kibble for cats or puzzle toys for your bird. Birds also like things they can tear up, such as boxes or magazines.
Make your departure fun!
“My dogs always get a treat when I leave the house,” Nord says.
If you already know your pet has separation anxiety, transition at a slower pace, Dr. Sung says. In severe cases, seek the guidance of a veterinary behaviorist or certified applied animal behaviorist.
“When their whole world revolves around you and then you go, there’s a pretty big chasm there,” Dr. Moon-Fanelli says.
You can find blog posts and videos on managing separation anxiety at fearfreehappyhomes.com.
Tall or small,
Q: What are the largest and smallest dog breeds?
A: While humans measure height to the top of our heads, a dog’s height is measured at the highest point of the shoulder, called the withers. Most recently, the tallest dog was Freddy, a Great Dane, who stood 40.75 inches on all fours. Freddy (who also held the title of oldest Great Dane when he was 8 years old) died in January when he was 8.5, and no other dog holds the tallest-dog title yet. Great Danes aside, Irish wolfhounds are generally considered to be the tallest dog breed.
The most recent holder of the Guinness World Record for smallest dog was Milly, a Chihuahua, who died last year when she was 9 years old. She was only 3.8 inches tall.
What about weight? Guinness no longer awards titles for heaviest dog, since putting on the pounds can be detrimental to their health, but generally the heaviest breed of dog is the mastiff. Zorba, a male mastiff born in 1981, reached an astounding 343 pounds. He also held the title of world’s longest dog, at 8 feet, 3 inches. Zorba died in 1989.
Freddy, Milly and Zorba’s ages at death bring up an important point. Dogs who are extreme in any way, such as height or weight, or the flat faces of brachycephalic breeds such as bulldogs, don’t tend to live long lives. Dogs of more moderate size and conformation typically live anywhere from 10 to 20 years.
It doesn’t seem fair that dogs of unusual size or shape should live shorter lives because they’ve been either super-sized or downsized. Nature seems to have limits on how far we can push the design of dogs, and we go beyond those lines at peril to our pets. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
new burn care
-- Sadie, a dog who was burned over 70% of her body after a heat lamp accident in her kennel, is making medical history. Veterinary surgeon and pain and rehab practitioner Dena Lodato, DVM, was treating her with hyperbaric oxygen, but skin grafts aren’t an option for dogs because of their fur. Dr. Jeffrey Carter, medical director at University Medical Center New Orleans Burn Center, saw her story and offered to help with new technology: a spray-on solution of the patient’s own skin cells that regenerate an outer layer of natural, healthy skin. Sadie is the first dog to receive the treatment, called RECELL.
-- Larry the Downing Street Cat recently celebrated 10 years of patrolling the British prime minister’s residence, keeping it rodent-free. The 14-year-old cat was adopted from London’s Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. Larry’s official title is Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office, and he has so far served under three prime ministers.
-- Like humans and other animals, birds can experience pain from traumatic injuries to beak, leg or wing; arthritis; and surgery. Other painful conditions include egg binding, feather picking and gastrointestinal or respiratory conditions. A bird’s pain signals can be subtle, but watch for such things as changes in behavior, increased or decreased vocalizations, reduced preening behavior, plucking feathers out, eating or drinking less, avoiding spending time with you or not wanting to be held (especially if she is normally sociable), letting you handle her when she doesn’t normally enjoy being handled, and unusual aggressive behavior such as biting. Birds in pain may also exhibit certain postures or movements, such as hunching over, squinting or closing their eyes, fluffing up feathers, falling, or moving more slowly than normal. Take your bird to the veterinarian if you notice any of these signs. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.