Most pet owners consider their four-legged friends as members of the family. Owners tell funny stories to friends about their pets amusing antics. Some pet owners even celebrate the birthdays of their feline and canine companions. Like other family members, owners cuddle with pets, talk to them, nurse them when they are sick, and punish them when they do things that are against the rules. Yet, while most pets are well-behaved, many owners have come home to find things ripped to shreds by their dog or that their cat soiled a favorite comforter. As much as owners may react harshly by yelling at or otherwise punishing their furry friends, consider the likelihood that these pets are reacting out of boredom, loneliness, and separation anxiety.
The reality is that many pets are subject pets to boredom, loneliness and separation anxiety just as children are. Although it is difficult to rationalize the destruction of property, pet owners should be careful not to anthropomorphize (to ascribe human characteristics to things not human) pet behavior. It is essential to realize that animals need mental and physical stimulation to prevent boredom and loneliness. Pets enjoy the company of their fellow pack animals to alleviate loneliness, for example, and an owners patient and compassionate help in overcoming separation anxiety is critical.
Researchers and veterinarians are not really sure what causes separation anxiety in some pets and not in others. Lately, the theory is that some pets have experienced a traumatic separation experience and/or may be genetically predisposed to anxious behavior. Animals that are separated from their mothers too early, or have been in and out of animal shelters, appear to be prone to anxious behavior. It is easy to understand why these experiences may dispose pets to continuing anxiety about becoming separated from those to whom they have formed attachments. Pets are creatures of habit, just as humans are.
Many dogs know that it’s time for a walk when they see owners grab the leash. Cats salivate when tea is made. They react to the sound of the spoon hitting the side of the cup, expecting a dab of milk as a treat. And, most importantly to this discussion, pets know that they will soon be left alone when you begin to wrap up your morning routine and prepare to leave for the day.
You may have noticed that your happy go lucky dog or cool as a cucumber cat become agitated or tense as you brush your teeth or put your shoes on. This agitation becomes near panic as you reach for your keys and grab your coat. And the panic becomes aggravated when you leave the house. Perhaps the tension doesn’t begin until you open the closet door and reach for your coat. “How cute, ” you think, “Rex wants to go outside. ” Yet, candidly, dogs and cats know the difference between going for a walk and their owners abandoning them for the day. Your pet is asking to go with you; and, when you appear to be ignoring his needs, he becomes anxious at the thought that you are leaving and may never return.
Have you ever returned home to find that the kitchen cabinets have been opened and all of your dried, boxed food has been ripped open and strewn haphazardly on the floor? Even worse than the actual mess, you recall that you put your dog in the crate before you left for work. The door to the crate is still closed; but your pet is sitting in the middle of the living room floor, surrounded by what’s left of your shredded wedding photo album, innocently wagging his tail. The neighbors have started complaining that your pet has been barking and howling constantly and your door frames have been chewed to bits.
A pet that suffers from loneliness, separation anxiety or boredom may display only one undesirable behavior. It is just as likely, however, that your pet is reacting only when you are not home. And unfortunately, this behavior is wreaking havoc on your relationship with your beloved pet. Observe your pet for signs of impending trouble as you go about your morning routine. A dog that is exhibiting signs of separation anxiety will often whimper or whine when they sense you may be preparing to leave.
Pacing the floors, shaking or shivering, and even aggressively trying to prevent your departure are not uncommon behaviors when your pet knows your departure is imminent. In fact, some pets have even taken to gnawing at his paws in an effort to alleviate anxiety – much like humans chew their own fingernails. An pet in the throes of extreme anxiety will occasionally injure himself or herself as a result of their behavior. These are extreme cases and need to be taken very seriously and solved immediately. A chewing behavior often extends to objects, doorways, and your pet may even dig and scratch at windows in an effort to find you.
Some animals may become depressed when they feel their humans have abandoned them. Depression in animals often takes the form of anorexia (refusal to eat) or vomiting. If an owner is leaving for the day, and a pet refuses to eat for eight or nine hours, this is not a significant issue. However, if an owner leaves for an extended period of time, say for a vacation or a job that involves traveling for more than a day at a time, a pet may become malnourished and may require medical treatment. Extreme cases may end with the death of your beloved pet. Incessant barking and howling is also common behavior for a dog that feels abandoned.
Cats who suffer from separation anxiety display many of the same behaviors as dogs. Many pet owners are fooled into thinking that cats have no apparent reaction to their comings and goings. However, just because cats are not known to cause major property damage, there is no reason to ignore their suffering, or to believe they are not bothered by your absence. A cat that is suffering from separation anxiety will pace, and often becomes nervous and clingy when an owner is preparing to leave for the day.
A cat suffering from separation anxiety can also display noisy protests to his owners departure. Cats may also urinate or defecate in inappropriate places and scratch doorways and furnishings. While it was thought that cats did not suffer from separation anxiety, the most recent research indicates that cats, like dogs, form strong bonds with humans, and may become anxious and overwhelmed when their masters leave. In fact, like dogs, cats may groom themselves to the point of baldness or sores.
While there is a tendency of a pet within a specific breed to suffer from boredom, loneliness or separation anxiety – often pure bred dogs and cats, mixed breeds suffer from the same emotional afflictions. Dogs and cats are social creatures. When deprived of the security of their natural mother and siblings, a new pet becomes attached to his new human family members. This is normal social animal behavior. Problems arise, however, when the attachment to the human family becomes excessively dependent. The pressing questions are how do we identify this behavior, and, subsequently, correct the resulting problems. Pets that form intense attachments to their masters are the likeliest candidates to suffer from boredom, loneliness or separation anxiety. Pets need to learn that we will be coming back soon and are not abandoning them forever, especially since animals have no real concept of time.
Soon after an owner departs, a pet begins to miss this attention, likely believing that the owner will be gone for a very long time. Those of us with children have learned that playing peek-a-boo teaches children that parents disappear, but return immediately. Animal experts do not suggest that you play peek-a-boo with your pets. They do, however, know that pets need to learn their owners will return. A dog that practically looses his mind with joy upon the return of his owner is likely suffering from separation anxiety. This is not to say that an emotionally healthy pet should ignore you when you walk in the door after a long day; but, he should definitely not act as if they have been deprived of all human contact for the last decade.
The lessons that reassure pets that their masters will return are best begun while they are young. Leaving animals with their biological mother until they are at least eight weeks old can go a long way toward eliminating feelings of separation. If you have a canine or feline companion that is no longer young, and he is not adjusting appropriately to your absences, you will need to put forth the effort to correct the situation yourself. However daunting the task seems, don’t lose hope! Regressive behavior that is a result of boredom, loneliness or separation anxiety can usually be remedied at any age. Old dogs can learn new tricks! Old cats, however, can be a different case altogether. Cats that have learned undesirable behavior are difficult to retrain. As a matter of fact, cat owners know full well that the word “train” often does not apply to cats. Cats are often immune to behavior modification. Yet, take heart, change is still possible.
Curiously enough, some pet owners and experts alike swear by the use of punishment to “break” an animal of an undesirable behavior. Although one must wonder why an owner would want a broken companion, the fact is that punishment is often counterproductive. A fostering of trust with any animal is imperative to building a sound relationship. For the purposes of this discussion, punishment is not a recommended course of action to rid your pet of undesirable behavior; and it is certainly not the way to teach your animal to trust that you have not abandoned him. It is important to remember that your pet is not attempting to punish you for abandoning them by gnawing on everything in sight or urinating on the floor. They are merely afraid that you will not return home. The resulting destructive behavior is the product of their fear of isolation.
Providing a pet with the services of a daycare center is an option, but not always feasible, and prohibitively expensive at that. In lieu of a pet sitter, owners should begin their campaign to reform their pet’s behavior by never making a big deal out of leaving their pet alone. Although many owners themselves experience separation anxiety, especially when a pet is new to a home, it is important that owners do not reveal guilt for leaving a new pet. The coming and going of pet owners is simply a fact of life, and a pet cannot always come along. The earlier pets come to accept this fact, the better they will fit into the family. Desensitizing your pet is the first step in helping him or her accept that an owner is not available.
Leave your pet for short periods of time and increase to longer periods. Actually leave the house when you do this exercise, as some pets are not easily fooled. When crate training a dog, use the same process. Leave the dog in the crate for short periods of time, gradually building up to longer stretches. Contrary to what some pet owners believe, crates are not cruel devices for dogs. Dogs are den animals. They often prefer the security of feeling like they are in a warm, safe den-like enclosure. Many dogs that have been crate trained are often found relaxing in their wired den with the door open, happily chewing on a bone or taking a nap. Remember, however, that you should never use the crate as a form of punishment. The crate is a safe haven for your dog, not a time-out room and should always retain positive associations. Additionally, upon returning to home or upon removing a pet from the crate, owners should actually ignore their pet for a short while. Remember, your comings and goings are not a big deal. The idea is that there is no cause for alarm or excitement when you depart or arrive.