Nobody wants to be left behind, including your pet. But, dogs and cats can’t explain their feelings in a greeting card or a tearful speech—instead their reactions are often mistaken for bad behavior, failed house training, or vengeance. This misunderstanding often leads well-intentioned owners to seek corrective training rather than veterinary care, thus failing to address the underlying problem, and worsening the pet’s condition.
Separation anxiety is extreme psychological distress that pets experience when their owner or bonded person is absent. Recognizing that the problem begins at home, Town and Country Animal Hospital has compiled a list of six classic separation anxiety signs in pets.
#1: Your pet acts crazy before you leave
As you gather your things and prepare to leave, you nearly trip over your pet. No matter where you turn, they are dancing under your feet, pressing up against you, and jumping up. Your dog may whine, drool, or spin in circles as you put on your shoes, tug on your bag, or block the door. Your pet has been fed, exercised, and had ample chance to eliminate, but appears more energetic than ever.
Humans are creatures of habit, and pets are skilled observers who recognize our departure rituals (e.g., grabbing the keys, putting on shoes). For pets with separation anxiety, their fear and stress are now heightened, because they know they’re about to be left alone.
#2: Your neighbors complain that your pet is vocalizing excessively
Once you’ve slipped out the door, your pet immediately begins vocalizing their dismay. The noise continues until you’re out of ear-shot, but your neighbor repeatedly complains that the noise doesn’t stop after you leave.
Excessive vocalization—including crying, moaning, barking, and howling—is a hallmark separation anxiety sign. Pets may continue to vocalize for long periods without any additional prompt or stimulus (e.g., trash truck, stray cat), jeopardize their owner’s house and furniture, or be surrendered when corrective bark collars, crate training, and other methods fail.
#3: Your pet is destructive during your absence
Pets with separation anxiety experience extreme panic and loss of control. In this frantic state, many resort to destructive behavior, including digging and chewing. Destruction may include furniture, floors, and walls, and is frequently focused around the doorways through which owners have departed.
The greatest destruction tends to occur during the first 15 minutes after the owner leaves, and only in the owner’s absence. This timing is actually a valuable clue about your pet’s motivation—if destructive behavior occurs in your presence, the issue is rooted in lack of training, but destructive tendencies that happen only in your absence strongly suggest separation anxiety.
#4: Your pet eliminates inappropriately
Pets may urinate or defecate during their owner’s absence. Cats may urinate in unusual locations, while dogs may experience stress colitis (i.e., diarrhea). Both species may vomit or regurgitate bile or food because of their distress. Similar to destructive behavior, anxiety-induced house soiling occurs only while the owner is away from home.
#5: Your pet clings to you when you return
When you return home, your pet constantly seeks your attention, and tries to maintain physical contact—which makes cleaning up their mess all the more challenging. Behaviors are often appeasement-based and include nuzzling, jumping up, lip-licking, circling, racing around wildly (i.e., the zoomies), and repeated pawing.
Rather than being truly submissive or apologetic actions, pets are seeking reassurance and comfort, and may not stop until you give them the undivided attention they crave.
#6: Your pet has escaped the house or been injured
Separation anxiety can motivate pets to seek their owners at all costs, including jumping through open windows, climbing barriers, digging under fences, and slipping through open doors. These attempts can have devastating consequences, such as being hit by a car, becoming lost, trapped, or seriously harmed, rather than the reunion they are seeking.
Owners who attempt to confine their pets to a crate or pen may escalate the issue. Pets who are not crate-trained may panic and suffer serious injury or impalement when trying to escape.
What to do if your pet shows separation anxiety signs
Because separation anxiety resembles many medical and behavioral conditions, having your pet evaluated at Town and Country Animal Hospital, before attempting any modification or training, is essential. After a thorough history and comprehensive physical examination, our veterinarians may recommend blood work or imaging to rule out conditions that commonly cause behavioral changes, such as incontinence, hormonal imbalance, pain, medication interaction, and clinical illness.
Treatment and prognosis for pets with separation anxiety
Separation anxiety treatment is not a quick fix, but a multi-faceted process requiring pharmaceutical and behavioral intervention. Your veterinarian will make specific recommendations, based on your pet’s history and sign severity. Treatments include:
- Anti-anxiety medications and supplements — These may be prescribed to increase positive neurotransmitters, create mild sedation, or suppress specific areas of the brain.
- Behavior modification — Through incremental training guided by a veterinary behaviorist or certified trainer with experience in separation anxiety, behavior modification teaches your pet independence and coping skills, and develops positive associations with your absence.
While successful resolution is possible for pets with separation anxiety, owners must be committed to the entire treatment plan—which demands patience, consistency, and time. If you suspect your dog or cat is suffering from separation anxiety, don’t ignore the warning signs—schedule an appointment at Town and Country Animal Hospital.