How To Manage Your Pet’s Anxiety When Returning To Work
Lockdown, at least, may have temporarily alleviated stressors of separation anxiety for your pets. Although as lockdown and restrictions continue to ease, owners may find themselves facing a second, more vigorous wave of the behaviour amongst pets. Indeed, for those who purchased pets during the lockdown, this may be your first experience of pet anxiety.
“A degree of anxiety is normal for everyone,” says Ian Shivers, a licensed pet psychologist from Bondi Behaviourist,” being sceptical of new things and wanting feedback before trusting something keeps our dogs and us alive after all.”
Universal emotions such as fear and nervousness are often falsely pathologized; however, anxiety itself is a real medical condition. Warning signs such as struggling to self-soothe or engaging in disruptive behaviours could indicate the underlying presence of a more severe issue which requires addressing.
Causes of Anxiety in Pets
"Anxiety, where the dog genuinely begins to anticipate negative outcomes where there is nothing to feel anxious about, can happen to dogs for the same reason it would people." Ian says. While these fears may appear irrational, it is essential to remember that your pet's behaviour will seem entirely appropriate from their anxious state of mind when left alone.
The three leading causes of anxiety in pets originate from:
A genetic predisposition
Sudden traumatic events
An accumulation of mild stressors
To further understand your pet's behaviour, it can be useful to identify the root cause of their anxiety. Has your pet always been sensitive to change? Do they always seem on alert to anticipating danger? If so, you may be looking at a genetic predisposition to anxiety.
On the other hand, if the onset of their anxiety seems more aligned with the lifting of lockdown restrictions, you may want to examine what stressors your pet is facing. Are they suddenly getting exercised less frequently? If you are no longer working from home, is it possible that loneliness takes a toll on their wellbeing?
Like in humans, anxiety triggers for pets are massively subjective and should be approached on a case to case basis. Through identifying the underlying cause of your pet's anxiety, you can begin to tailor an effective plan to counter condition their separation anxiety.
Symptoms to Spot
Anxiety may seem a daunting condition to approach – especially as by the nature of separation anxiety, your pet will likely be displaying their most noticeable symptoms in your absence. However, an increase in disruptive behaviour can act as a reliable indicator that something is amiss.
Behavioural symptoms include:
"They are all attempts to feel comfortable again," Ian says," chewing and digging releases endorphins that the dog will crave to fight the stress. Howling, barking, and escaping are all attempts for the dog to get some degree of attention or to seek you out again when alone.".
The ultimate goal of addressing your pet's separation anxiety should be to establish feelings of safety, security, and comfort in the space where you leave them. Fortunately, there are many ways to promote this state of mind. The provision of appropriate soothing outlets, for example, can encourage the pet to self soothe – alleviating anxiety without the reliance on your presence. Alternatively, you could minimise time spent alone by walking your dog on your lunch break or hiring a dog walker.
10 Ways to Combat Separation Anxiety
While Ian stresses that there are no quick fixes to separation issues, he acknowledges the implementation of positive steps to combat the anxiety as, or before, it arises.
His compiled suggestions are as follows:
“Reward calm and patient behaviour as a general rule of thumb
Avoid rewarding pushy and demanding behaviour
Avoid rewarding attention-seeking behaviours
Allow the dog to practice calm and independent behaviours such as chewing and sleeping, which are inherently rewarding to the dog that it does not need you to do them.
Practice leaving the dog alone to some degree from the beginning. Building a tolerance to being alone and developing healthy coping skills can be practiced and built gradually.
Practice building the dog's tolerance to being left alone gradually.
Remember that behaviour does not move in a straight line. Just because the dog could be left alone for two hours one day, does not necessarily mean that it can be left alone for longer or the same amount of time the next time you leave.
Avoid forcing the dog away longer than it can cope. This will cause further stress and likely to increase unwanted behaviours.
Avoid blindsiding the dog as you are leaving or leaving hurried and rushed. Take the time to relax the dog and leave calmly. The frame of mind your dog is in that you shut the door on is likely to be one it remains in.
Leave out familiar and rewarding enrichment to soothe the dog, such as food puzzles and natural chews. Avoid leaving out toys that leave it hyperactive such as balls that can roll under counters and cause frustration.”
Depending on the severity of your pet's separation anxiety, you may need to enlist external support.
"The wrong help can and do cause more problems than they solve." Ian warns – recommending that owners recruit reputable dog trainers that use positive methods and have a solid understanding of behaviour. "For cases of genuine anxiety, please consult a veterinarian or veterinary behaviourist to work with you and your dog trainer." He adds.
For those interested in accessing further information, the RSCPA's detailed approach to the condition can be found through the link below.
By Eibhlis Gale-Coleman.
Eibhlis Gale - Coleman is currently travelling full time on a gap year. She has lived in Sydney for the past eleven months, working as an au-pair and stablehand.
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