Separation anxiety in dogs is a well-recognised condition– but what about other pets? Cats may be independent and self-reliant, but their world revolves around their human. So, is cat separation anxiety also an issue? And what about small animals? Naturally social bunnies, guinea pigs, rats, degus, gerbils and chinchillas form close bonds with their owners – how does time spent without human company affect them?
As people begin to imagine what life may start to look like when the days of lockdown are finally over, it’s important to think about the impact it will have on our pets.
PDSA vets advises: “Separation-related problems are extremely common, and if dogs are very attached to their owners, this long period of time spent together can make the problem worse when they do have to be left alone again. It’s very difficult to know how dogs will behave when their owners return to their normal routine and every dog may react differently.”
Rachel Casey, Director of Canine Behaviour and Research at Dogs Trust says: "A big worry for us is what the long-term impact of lockdown will have on dogs’ ability to cope when left home alone. Dogs that had separation anxiety before the lockdown are likely to get worse when left again as owners head back to work – but we also expect to see new cases developing, because other dogs, and particularly puppies, have learnt to expect company all day.”
Huw Stacey, director of clinical services at Vets4Pets, adds: “Separation anxiety is most likely to affect dogs, but some of the more highly strung cat breeds can display symptoms, too. Rabbits can suffer from the condition – particularly house rabbits.”
Veterinarian Dr Krista A Sirois states: “Research supports the fact that cats can develop separation anxiety syndrome, and they show many of the same signs that are seen in dogs.”
She outlines the following key factors that may cause separation anxiety in cats:
Being a female cat – Female cats are diagnosed with separation anxiety more often than male cats
Being an indoor cat – Most separation anxiety cases are seen in cats that live entirely indoors and come from a home with only one adult caregiver
Not having other pets in the home
Experiencing a change in routine – A common scenario is a pet parent that has worked from home and then transitions to leaving the house for work each day
Even zoo animals are missing the company of humans. Dublin Zoo told BBC News that their animals were “wondering what's happened to everyone.” Linda Hardwick, communications director of Phoenix Zoo, reports: “We have noticed that some of our more ‘social’ animals are not a fan of the stay at home and social distancing orders. Primates especially have noticed our guests are gone and go looking for them.”
“Without visitors, some animals lack stimulation,” says Paul Rose, lecturer in animal behaviour at the University of Exeter: “Some individuals, such as primates and parrots get a lot of enrichment from viewing and engaging with visitors. It is beneficial to the animal's wellbeing and quality of life. If this stimulation is not there, then the animals are lacking the enrichment.”
Burgess in-house vet Dr Suzanne Moyes advises: “It’s not just dogs and cats who will be affected by not having their human companions around 24/7, our small pets will feel the impact too. As prey animals, rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas are naturally predisposed to being cautious and on high alert, which makes them susceptible to experiencing stress when their routine changes. In addition, those pets who are active during the day – such as ferrets, degus and rats – will have become used to enjoying more playtime with their human, so it’s highly likely they’ll suffer from separation anxiety too.”
So, what can human pet guardians do to help?
Advice for dog owners
Rachel Casey of Dogs Trust advises that dog owners take positive action: “Now is the time to act to avoid future problems – and it’s easy to do. Just make sure that you factor in time apart from your dog each day to help them be able to cope when alone – this could be separated from you by a door or child gate for an hour or two whilst you’re working or home schooling the kids. By organising your dog’s day, with time apart, play times, exercise, other activity sessions (like giving them a food filled toy) and quiet times, you can make sure that your dog maintains their ability to cope with the different aspects of ‘normal’ life when we get back to it.”
Here are some practical tips from Dogs Trust to follow:
- Make sure your dog has a comfy bed or den, where they can relax in peace.
- Give them something fun to occupy them, such as a long-lasting treat or puzzle toy.
- While your dog is enjoying their treat, take a couple of steps to the other side of the room. If your dog stays where they are, wait a moment, then go back and reward them with an extra treat.
- Increase the distance you move away and the time you wait before returning with the extra treat.
- You should soon be able to leave the room and close the door or gate.
- Progress to spending more time in a different room and build this into the daily routine.
- It's important that your dog remains relaxed. If they show signs of distress, leave them for a shorter period, or don’t move as far away, next time.
Read more tips on how to help your dog feel calm and safe when you have to leave them >>
Blue Cross has advice on how to prevent separation anxiety in puppies >>
Visit the pet advice section of Battersea’s website
Advice for cat owners
Dr Sirois advises thinking about ways you can keep your cat busy while you’re gone, which can help decrease anxiety. Here are some ideas to try:
- Puzzle feeders, which are toys that your cat has to play with to release the food inside, can be really helpful. Working for food is a really enriching experience for cats.
- Create a ‘treasure hunt’ by placing secret stashes of dry food in different locations, such as by special snoozing spots, scattered around a cat tree or on a favourite lookout spot, such as a high shelf.
- Check out live-streaming TV shows designed specifically for cats with feline-friendly distractions such as chirping birds or swimming fish such as these featured on CatTime .
- Try to ignore attention-seeking behaviours and give your cat attention when they are calm and showing signs of independence. For example, praise them or toss a small treat to them when they’re resting in another room or when they stop meowing for attention.
- Consistent routines are very beneficial for pets with anxiety disorders, so try to keep to the same schedule as much as possible.
- Remain calm when you leave your house and return home. Wait until your cat is calm and quiet to give them attention.
Advice for small pet owners
Dr Moyes says: “Enrichment is key to keeping our small pets busy and happy when we’re not around. It’s all about making a pet’s life more fulfilling by providing opportunities for them to exhibit natural behaviours such as foraging, tunnelling, digging or climbing. Rabbits, for example, will enjoy cardboard boxes with holes cut into them for them to explore, cardboard tubes stuffed with tasty feeding hay and herbs to munch on and wicker balls to bat about. Engaging activities and sensory stimulation play a big part in boosting the health and wellbeing of our small pets.”
- We’ve lots of ideas for things you can introduce to keep things interesting for rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, rats, mice, chinchillas, gerbils and degus here >>
- Read about fun toys for ferrets that will occupy their curious, questioning minds...
Need professional help?
If your pet is struggling with a separation problem, then it’s well worth seeking professional help. Your vet can refer you to The Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors or contact the Animal Behaviour and Training Council who will help you find a reputable, positive reinforcement behaviourist or trainer in your area. There are a huge variety of services being offered at a distance. Online group classes, one-to- one training, and behaviour consultations, with some services available via telephone calls.
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Sources: pdsa.org.uk, dogstrust.org.uk, petmd.com, petsathome.com, bbc.co.uk/news, bluecross.org.uk