Help ease separation anxiety in your cat by creating a new routine and introducing new toys that will help stimulate their brains. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Aug. 5, 2021

How to manage your pandemic pet’s separation anxiety

Tips and resources to help pet owners as they return to in-person work or study  

Many people adopted furry friends during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Alberta Animal Rescue Crew Society (AARCS), nearly 1,800 dogs and close to 2,800 cats were adopted from their organization between January 2020 and the end of June 2021, with applications for dog adoption doubling in 2020 over 2019.

Many of these newly acquired pets became accustomed to having continuous company and rarely being left alone for long periods of time. This constant togetherness helped them forge strong bonds with their owners.  

So, what happens now that more pet owners are returning to the workplace or classroom?   

“There is a concern that a lot of these pets may develop separation anxiety when owners go back to their normal routines,” says Dr. Serge Chalhoub, DVM, a senior instructor and small-animal internal medicine specialist at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM).

How to tell if your pet has separation anxiety

“Separation anxiety occurs when pets develop high levels of stress and anxiety when left alone. These feelings can translate into some undesirable behaviours,” says Chalhoub.  

There are varying degrees of severity when it comes to separation anxiety, says Dr. Jennifer Richards, DVM, a former UCVM intern at the CARE Centre and owner of Sundance Animal Hospital. While some pets may be upset and follow their owners around the house to avoid being left alone, others will display destructive behaviour to their environment or themselves.

“Common signs of separation anxiety in dogs include barking, panting, drooling, urinating or defecating inappropriately, and destruction,” says Richards, who works extensively in pet behavioural medicine. “There are some dogs who panic to the point of self-injury, breaking teeth, injuring their nails, and trying to get out of the crate, room or house, depending on where they are left.” 

Chalhoub says cats, on the other hand, “may be less attached to their owners, but may still display abnormal behaviours if their routines have changed.” Some behaviours that indicate separation anxiety can include inappropriate urination, decreased appetite, excessive meowing and destructive behaviour.  

While separation anxiety is most common among new pets, it can also occur with older animals. Older dogs tend to be more resilient as they are used to shorter walks and older pets in general are used to being left alone for longer periods of time; however, older pets can still show signs of separation anxiety, says Chalhoub.   

Help your pet by making a plan

Both Chalhoub and Richards recommend pet owners plan ahead and use resources that will ease the transition of going back to the workplace. Suddenly going back without a plan, they say, is the worst thing a pet owner can do. 

“Sometimes, we need to do some behaviour modification. We need to get the animal comfortable being alone and changing behaviour can take a lot of time,” says Richards.  

Steps that dog owners can take to manage the transition may include hiring a dog walker or trainer, taking them to pet daycare, and creating a sustainable walking schedule that owners can maintain when they return to in-person work. 

Chalhoub adds that some strategies to ease separation anxiety in cats include creating a new routine and introducing new toys that will help stimulate their brains. This concept is called environmental enrichment. 

With today’s technology, Richards says pet owners can easily monitor their pet’s behaviour with remote cameras while they’re gone. Using this tool can help owners figure out what the animal is comfortable with and ultimately take steps that will lead to the pet being more contented on its own.   

Your veterinarian can help

Most importantly, pet owners should talk to their veterinarian as they can provide resources to help navigate the anxiety pets are feeling, while also ensuring there are no underlying medical conditions causing the animal to be anxious. “A big part of diagnosing separation anxiety is excluding that there’s something medically wrong with that animal,” says Richards.  

Adds Chalhoub: “It may be daunting for some owners to go back to work and leave their pets, but there are ways to navigate the anxiety pets might develop and the last thing we want to do is give up. So, please talk to a veterinarian. There are resources we can help you with.”  

Another resource Richards recommends for dog owners is the book Separation  Anxiety in Dogs: Next Generation Treatment Protocols and Practices by Malena DeMartini-Price.  For cat owners she recommends Decoding Your Cat: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Cat Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones, edited by Dr. Meghan E. Herron.   

Of course, separation anxiety is a two-way street and can be just as tough for the owner. It is important to note that addressing separation anxiety takes time, so it is crucial to plan ahead, speak to a veterinarian and use resources to ease the transition away from working from home.