Pet Health: Back-to-school time can trigger separation anxiety in pets

sad dog chihuahua waiting in a locked car their owners

By Jennie Willis, Ph.D.

Each year, “back to school” means lots of changes in humans’ – and animals’ – schedules. Parents are excited for the return to routine, and kids might be dreading it, but sometimes we forget about our pets.

Dogs in particular can have profound struggles with the sudden lack of availability of their human companions if they suffer from separation anxiety. It can seem to come on suddenly, but often it is a coinciding of the age of the dog and a sudden lack of availability of you, their human family members.

What is separation anxiety? Essentially, it is your pet’s inability to handle being alone. Most dogs derive great comfort and anxiety relief when human family members are available, and without their presence, some are unable to cope. More often, dogs present with signs of anxiety when their owners are gone on a daily basis. Cats exhibit signs when their owners leave for trips of multiple days.

Most of the behaviors associated with separation anxiety show in the first hour you leave. Some dogs remain affected the entire duration of the absence, however, and never adjust to their owner leaving.

Anxiety, fears and phobias are the underlying causes of many behavioral conditions, says the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, which estimates that 17 percent of dogs suffer from separation anxiety.

What does separation anxiety look like?

If any of the following behaviors occur consistently and only in your absence, your dog may have separation anxiety.

  • Barking, whining or crying. Barking is often rhythmic or in repetitive intervals. The quality of the bark or vocalization is higher in pitch and associated with distress.
  • Urination may be marking or squatting. Defecation is also common and can be quite loose in association with stress. Your veterinarian will also want to rule out any medical issue causing inappropriate elimination.
  • Chewing on or breaking out of a crate, chewing on windows or door moldings, or jumping a fence may all be behavioral signs of attempting to get to owners.
  • This often centers on chewing items where the owner’s scent is concentrated, like couches and beds, or items that we touch often, such as cell phones, remotes or magazines.
  • Drooling, shaking or pacing. When escape is not possible, sometimes dogs will show some of these behaviors as a terminal point of panic.

Common indications your dog may be at risk include:

  • Being overly attached to you when you are home. Your dog may bark or become distressed when you close a door at home.
  • They rise from a sound sleep to follow you from room to room.
  • Loss of a significant social companion. If a canine companion or a human family member is no longer available at all, this can put more stress on your dog.
  • Dogs between 18 months and 3 years of age that have a significant change in schedule.

What can you do to help your dog during changes in schedule?

  • Provide enrichment. Give them things to do with their mouths and their bodies and give them practice each day with these solitary play strategies. That way, they don’t depend just on you to feel okay, and they have some coping strategies in place that they are used to.
  • Give them access to important social areas when you are gone. Escape attempts are related to trying to reach you or the scent of you.
  • Practice leaving for a bit when you know you will be home for a while, so that it it stays part of their daily life to occasionally have no access to you.
  • This might be difficult, but try to change your behavior when leaving and coming home. Become socially unavailable for the hour before you leave – little petting, no training, etc. Don’t be especially excited when you come home. Be boring and unavailable for the first half-hour of being home again.

If you think your pet is already suffering from separation anxiety, please reach out for professional help and let’s help get your pet feeling better. Your veterinarian can assist, and the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior can refer you to a qualified behavior expert.

Jennie Willis, Ph.D., instructs Colorado State University veterinary students in applied companion animal behavior and co-advises the CSU student chapter of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. She coordinates the CSU master’s degree program in Zoo, Aquarium and Animal Shelter Management.

James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital