Veterinarian Explains How to Prevent Pet Separation Anxiety

During the pandemic, 23 million American households adopted a pet. But now that owners are leaving animals home alone to go to work, are pets stressing out? Veterinarian Dr. Molly McAllister draws insights from data collected from hospitals and pet visits in 2021 to determine just how our pets may be feeling once we leave our homes.

Video Transcript

- During the pandemic, 23 million American households adopted a pet.




But now that owners are leaving animals home alone to go back to work, are pets stressing out?


MOLLY MCALLISTER: What we found across the pandemic was that for dogs and cats, separation anxiety increased significantly. For dogs, it increased by about 33%. For cats, the increase was double. So twice as many cats diagnosed with anxiety. So they absolutely sense the changes in our households.

- As a Chief Medical Officer of Banfield Pet Hospital, Dr. McAllister draws insights from data collected over 9 and 1/2 million pet visits in 2021 from 1,000 hospitals across America.

MOLLY MCALLISTER: When we start leaving the house for that full day of work, that eight 10, 12 hour day of being gone, it's a big routine disruption. And so we need to start preparing them so that they can navigate it with success.

- Let's walk through some specific tips and strategies pet owners can use to deal with pet separation anxiety.



MOLLY MCALLISTER: So if they're experiencing some anxiety, being calm and cool and collected with those goodbyes and greetings is the most important thing to do. So we can practice leaving our dogs, leaving our pets for progressively longer periods of time. Start with leaving your pet in the room alone and going to another room in the house for a few minutes, and then returning.

You can slowly expand that time. So the next time you might leave to go to the grocery store and be gone for 15 or 20 minutes. And then come back and helping them realize that everything was OK, you came back, you didn't make a big deal about it, and so they don't need to make a big deal about it. And so we start easing our way into that long day rather than just suddenly hitting them with us being gone and them not knowing what happened.

So some people will give their dog a favorite treat, for example, a toy, to help distract them as they leave to help take their mind off of it. That idea of associating a food treat with the departure can be a way to make it more positive. What we do have to be careful of, is that those treats can get pretty calorie dense.

And then very importantly, when we come home, it's OK to just kind of ignore them for a little while and let them settle down before we give them the greeting that we really are looking forward to. A couple of other things we can do behaviorally is to really just set up a better routine, so that they know what to expect at various times in the day. They know when we leave, they know when we come home, they know when walk time is, they know when food time is. So routine is very important for our pets.

So exercise before you leave is always a great way to kind of burn off the willies for them to then head into that day where they might just nap instead of being anxious about your departure. Walk time, exercise, is so important for their peace of mind, for their well-being, particularly in a time of stress. For cats, it might be playing with a fishing pole toy or a ball toss around the house, depending on what they're interested in. But getting them regular exercise is a great way to help their brains be calmer during those times of stress.

- Once we leave them home alone, how do we keep tabs on them throughout the day?

MOLLY MCALLISTER: A lot of people will put some sort of a pet cam in their house so that they can see what their pets are doing during the day. Some of those even allow you to talk to your pet or to dispense a treat at a certain time. And those can be great for the pet that's engaged in that type of behavior that will engage with a screen. Now Jack, when I try to FaceTime with him, he pretty much ignores me. So for him, it would be more about just watching what's going on during the day. Is he jumping up on the counter? Is he destroying something? Is he anxious when I leave?

- How does a pet's stress manifest itself at home?

MOLLY MCALLISTER: Cats tend to hide their stress and hide their anxiety. And so what you might see is a cat that's more withdrawn, a cat that spends more time hiding under the bed or a cat who starts expressing their displeasure and their stress with litter box changes.

- And what about dogs?

MOLLY MCALLISTER: It might be increased panting or pacing. It might be behaviors that you don't actually get to see, because they express them when you're not at home. So your neighbors might report that your dog has started barking a lot more. You might notice that a dog who normally was OK being left alone is now starting to be destructive. You might see that there's some soiling in the house maybe your dog has never done before. Are they pacing a lot? Are they sleeping as much as they normally do or excessively? Are they scratching or barking a lot?

- There's also a growing market for Fitbit-style monitors that give owners a peek into the secret life of their dogs. Monitoring red flags, such as over-scratching, licking and sleeping, and changing eating patterns.

MOLLY MCALLISTER: There's a variety of nutrients that have been associated with having a calming effect. Some of them are milk proteins, L-tryptophan, which you might recognize from turkey dinner. Through various research studies, we know that these can have a calming effect on dogs and cats. So many of these supplements are going to help to kind of take the edge off. But they may not be the cure-all for a pet with really severe separation anxiety.

So in addition to nutrients that your pet can ingest, the use of pheromones is becoming more and more popular. So we can use pheromones from both dogs and cats, and they come in the form of collars that your pet can wear. They can be sprays that you can put on a bandanna that you put around your pet's neck or you put 'em in their crate or on their bed.

They also make diffusers that you plug into the wall that emit that pheromone throughout the day. So for dogs, it's a pheromone called the milk appeasing pheromone. It's a pheromone that the mother dog gives off as she's nursing her puppies. For cats, it's a slightly different pheromone, but it's still that same idea of giving them a greater sense of calm in a time of stress.

Banfield did a survey in 2020 of pet owners, and we found that 57% indicated that when they return to work, they would want to return in a situation that would enable them to take their pet. And the good news is, that we also did a survey of CEOs and found that one in two or 50% of CEOs said that they plan to institute some sort of way for people to return to work with their pets after the pandemic ended.

- In addition, a recent study by the American Animal Hospital Association found that 90% of employees in pet-friendly workplaces versus 65% of employees in non pet-friendly jobs feel fully engaged with their work and are willing to recommend their employer to others.

MOLLY MCALLISTER: Pets provide us with some amazing support and comfort, and the human animal bond is undeniable throughout the world. So making sure that we consider their uniqueness and that we do our very best to create a life with mutual benefit and they get to experience the consistency, the stability and the support of the people who love them, the families that they belong to.