JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO, Texas –
The global coronavirus pandemic has caused many changes in households across the country, including major adjustments to routines for school, work, shopping, and even visits with friends and family. While people have the ability to express themselves verbally while coping with their new normal, pets cannot.
“As changes occur in a pet’s environment, they may experience anxiety,” said Maj. Marty G. Roaché, chief of Behavioral Medicine and Working Dog Studies for the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Veterinary Service, Joint Base San Antonio-Chapman Annex.
One type of anxiety pet parents may be seeing is separation anxiety, or SA.
“Separation anxiety occurs because of a pet’s anticipation of a negative outcome, which is being left alone or being denied access to the owner,” Roaché said, reminding pet parents that the separation is not always absence from the home. “For example, the owner may be working in a home office but has shut the door, causing a physical barrier between themselves and the pet, thus preventing the pet’s access to the owner. This is what would be termed virtual absence.”
There are many reasons some animals develop SA and others do not.
“Common risk factors include previously experiencing a traumatic event, such as a severe thunderstorm, while alone,” Roaché said. “The pet may also be inexperienced at being left alone; they may have never learned the skill of being independent of the owners.
“Older aged pets beginning to experience cognitive deficiencies, loss of hearing or vision, may also begin to show signs of separation anxiety,” she added.
Roaché said it is important to recognize that pets can sense when a change is coming, which can lead to anxiety in anticipation.
“Our pets are very smart and will quickly identify cues that are predictive of being separated from the owner, such as picking up a purse or wallet, putting on shoes, or grabbing car keys. In turn, these cues become conditioned stimuli for anxiety,” she said.
To help determine if a pet is experiencing SA, there are four clinical signs to look for when the owner is not present, either really or virtually. These are destruction, elimination, vocalization or salivation.
“When an owner leaves and a dog is confined to a crate, they may chew on the bars until they are bleeding from the mouth,” she said. “Less apparent clinical signs might include drooling, pacing, panting or licking.”
Cats are a little harder to figure out.
“As domestic cats have traditionally been viewed as asocial or even antisocial, SA is not as well documented as in dogs,” Roaché said. “However, recent research has suggested that cats do form social bonds with people and may be at risk for SA. It has been suggested that owner-absent house soiling and over-grooming behaviors may be signs.”
It is important for owners to prepare their pets for separation, and in some cases, the assistance of a veterinary behaviorist may be needed, Roaché said.
“Helping your pet cope with SA may take time, so be prepared,” she said. “You are thinking, ‘I do not have the amount of time that is going to be required to help my pet, or it is going to be too hard and neither of us will get it right.’ I design my behavior modification treatment plans so that the homework assignment only requires 5 to 10 minutes a day.
“I know how busy people are, and how tired people are at the end of the workday, and here I am asking them to do one more thing. Short sessions lessen the chance that the owner or pet will become frustrated,” she said.
Short sessions also help to attain goals, which, when done correctly, will help pets build confidence, which in turn helps make them a happier pet, she said.
To help a pet adjust to being alone, have the pet spend a few moments by itself during the day.
“This could be having the owner work outside for 30 minutes while the pet remains inside, or the pet gets to go to a different room for alone time,” Roaché said, adding that it is important for the owner to follow their previously normal routine prior to starting the alone time.
This could also be accomplished with a family, where everyone is required to leave the living room and remain quiet for 30 minutes 2-3 times a day, leaving the pet alone, Roaché said.
“At the end of 30 minutes, everyone returns to the living room, and the dog settles into a new semi-normal routine," she said.
Obtaining a diagnosis from a veterinarian is the first step toward treatment, Roaché said, as there could be underlying medical or other anxiety-related concerns that can exacerbate the situation.
“For cases with milder distress, but not true clinical SA, something as simple as giving the pet a toy that has been stuffed with yummy treats is enough to alleviate the pet’s concern,” she said. “If full blown signs of SA are present, it may be necessary to enlist the help of a specialty veterinary behaviorist who can formulate an in-depth behavior modification treatment plan and prescribe behavior medications if needed.”
Roaché said it is important for a pet’s health to resolve the issue.
“Try not to assume a pet is eliminating or destroying things because it is angry or getting back at you for being left alone. In truth, dogs do not need to be with their human 24 hours per day,” she said, adding that punishment is not the answer.
“While punishment might reduce undesirable behavior in that one setting, you must remember that fear is an emotional state and punishment, or any stimulus that might lead to a negative or unpleasant consequence, will further increase the fear and anxiety,” she said. “If the return of the human leads to punishment, but the dog does not know why it is being punished, this will increase the fear and anxious state of mind and could damage the human-animal bond.”
If your pet is displaying signs of SA, eligible members may contact the JBSA-Randolph Veterinary Clinic at 210-652-3190 or the JBSA-Fort Sam Houston Veterinary Clinic at 210-808-6101. Currently, there is no vet available at JBSA-Lackland, but pet parents may contact one of the other two clinics for availability.