Your question: Why does my pet have separation anxiety?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy.

Too often we underestimate animals, when in fact they are more similar to us humans than we think. Pets in particular have become part of families for centuries. They have indescribable emotional value, and like any other family member, they can have their own problems.

In dogs, cats and even pet birds, separation anxiety has been studied as a real phenomenon (1). Depending on the type of pet you have, you may observe patterns of behavior when you are not there to care for them.

Whether you have errands to run, going to work or taking a trip, you can’t always be with your pet as you would like to be. Therefore, you need to teach your pet, through specific techniques, that there are times when separation is necessary.

This can produce many doubts in you as an owner, but it is something completely normal in all types of pets of any age. It may be a necessary adjustment period for your pet, which will eventually settle down, or it may be something that requires more attention and supervision on your part.

Separation anxiety in pets manifests itself through disruptive behaviors. Dogs and cats may urinate, defecate, bark, meow loudly and try to escape. Birds may make more noise than usual and bang their cage with their beak and body.

This problem has a solution. Anxiety is a problem that also affects animals, and there are professionals willing to help you if you consider that the problem is beyond your control. For the time being, it is necessary to know the origin of your pet’s separation anxiety before applying strategies to reduce it.

Why does your pet have separation anxiety?

Your dog, cat, bird or any other type of pet may be experiencing separation anxiety for a variety of reasons. These symptoms appear whenever it is left alone or in the care of someone other than you. Some common causes of separation anxiety in pets are:

New family

When a pet arrives to a new family, he faces an adaptation process related to space and people. If your pet has little time with you, especially if it is young, it is possible that separation anxiety is due to the fact that you are the only person who gives it security, and it has to take time for it to adjust to other people and develop security on its own.

Experiences of abuse

It is common for pets that end up in foster homes, especially dogs and cats, to have been abused either by previous owners or while on the street. These pets, when adopted by their owners, show excessive anxiety and attachment, as they associate their new home and caregiver as the only security bond they have.

Adaptation to change

Pets also feel anxiety when faced with change. If you recently had a move, your pet may have separation anxiety because he misses his old home, and creates a close attachment to you by associating you as the only security he has left.

Owner separation anxiety

Research (2) has shown that owners very often experience separation anxiety from their pets. They manifest intense worry, fear, and sadness when they are away from their pets, which often causes severe emotional problems. This human behavior can also cause separation anxiety in pets, who perceive that if their owner doesn’t feel safe and calm when temporarily separated, neither do they.

What can you do?

Conditioning is essential for dealing with emotional problems that pets have. There are professional animal psychologists who may be able to help you deal with your pet’s separation anxiety if you feel the problem is beyond your control.

It is crucial that your pet associates separation with you as a period of security and satisfaction, in which it should not feel afraid that something bad will happen to it, since it is only temporary. For this, you can ask family, friends or a caregiver to feed your pet something it likes while you are away, or to take it for a walk in a nice place.

This will give your pet, in addition to a distraction, the association that being temporarily separated from you can be a period of tranquility. If this strategy doesn’t work after a couple of months, consult a veterinarian, looking to rule out that your pet has a medical problem that makes them feel constantly anxious.

In my experience…

Separation anxiety in pets is common, and does not necessarily mean a problem, as it tends to diminish with time. However, if it becomes persistent, it is necessary that you consult a professional who will guide you to take appropriate measures to improve your pet’s emotional state and yours as well. 

Remember that pets are highly intelligent beings. They can sense your worries and anxieties and feel dazed and confused as a result. Therefore, you must work on your own anxiety, making sure that you are a good owner and are doing your best to provide for their well-being.

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