Does your pooch panic when you depart? Many pets experience anxiety when left home alone—particularly if they’ve gotten used to you being around 24/7 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet as COVID-19 vaccine availability spreads and more people resume their commute to an office, many pet owners might worry how Fido will cope if he can’t curl up near Mom or Dad pecking away at a laptop.
So how do you know if your pet may suffer from separation anxiety? According to integrated veterinarian Judy Morgan, some telltale signs are if your pet follows you everywhere, is always in the same room as you, or acts anxious (barking, panting) when you leave. Once you’re gone, you might hear your pet pace, whine, or howl. Or else you may return home to a destruction zone—e.g., Fido has gnawed a rug or armchair to shreds. (For the record, cats are more solitary animals and less likely to have issues when left alone, although that doesn’t mean they won’t get into mischief.)
“We humans are pets’ pack leaders,” explains Morgan. “When the pack leader leaves, animals who are not adjusted to being alone can become distraught.”
If you recognize that your pets may be struggling when you’re not there, here are some ways you can help assuage their animal angst.
1. Create a safe room
One of the best things you can do to assuage your pets’ anxiety is to create a “safe room” in the house just for them.
It could be a closet or a small room in the basement—preferably with no windows—someplace where your pets can go to feel calm. You can create that space by setting it up with a bed, or some toys your pets love that they get to enjoy only while in there, and perhaps some sweatshirts with your scent on them.
“Get them to love the room by spending time in there with them. Read a book or play on your phone or computer while being present but ignoring them, rewarding them for entertaining themselves and being calm,” says Morgan. “It also serves as your pet’s den—dogs like to hide in small places.”
Make sure this area can keep out light flashes (from ambulance or fire truck lights or lightning) and noise (from thunder, sirens, etc.). By getting your pets used to their safe room before you go out, you’re giving them a place where they can feel protected and retreat to.
2. Cue the exit music
Putting on some pet-friendly songs prior to your departure can really help fill the void caused by your absence.
“I like to use spa music because it helps soothe the pet. You can also leave on dog TV or something entertaining for them to watch,” says Morgan.
Another option she recommends is “Through a Dog’s Ear” or “Through a Cat’s Ear”—soundtracks of piano music that have been shown to quash anxiety in 70% of dogs in shelters and kennels, and 85% of dogs in homes. Cats and dogs, after all, are highly sensitive to sound—and these soundtracks are designed by a neurologist to include frequencies and patterns that calm the canine (and feline) nervous system.
3. Plug in some pheromones
In addition to acute hearing, many pets have a keen sense of smell—which is why wafting animal pheromones can chill them out. Delivered via a pet collar, spray, or diffuser like these ones from Adaptil, “the pheromones replicate the pheromones mother dogs emit when they are nursing their puppies,” says Morgan. “They have been clinically proven to decrease stress that leads to unwanted behaviors.” (Thankfully, these scents are not easily detectable by humans.)
4. Toss them a toy and/or treat
Chances are your pet has a favorite toy and you can use that as a way to offer comfort when you’re heading out. However, another tactic Morgan suggests is to get a stash of new toys that you disseminate in times of stress or distraction.
“I really like food toys if the pet is food-motivated. Something like a Kong,” says Morgan. “I like to fill them with bone broth or baby food or anything the dog will really like, put them in the freezer, take them out, and give them to the dog to lick and work at. It’s a great distractor, and bone broth is really healthy for them.”
5. Drop in CBD oil
Cannabidiol oil—oil extracted from hemp plants—is all the rage right now for humans looking to chill out, but the good news is that you can use the same drops to calm your anxious pet.
According to Morgan, CBD interacts with receptors in a dog’s central nervous system that manage mood, appetite, the immune system, and sleep. When CBD oil components bind to those receptors in a dog’s central nervous system, it increases the animal’s serotonin level to help achieve a sense of calm.
Just keep your dosage in mind—for starters, don’t use any oil that contains more than 0.3% THC. From there, you should consider your pet’s weight.
“Dosing is generally 1 mg per 10 pounds body weight, but you can go higher if necessary to get the desired effect,” suggests Morgan.
There are still ongoing studies to determine the best range for pets, she explains, but this is a safe starting point. Try administering drops directly in your pet’s mouth, or adding it to your dog’s food, water, or a treat.
6. Wrap them up
Wrapping your dog in a ThunderShirt can keep it calm.
Just like a weighted blanket can make a human feel safe and cared for, wrapping up your dog before you leave the house can make it feel more secure.
“The wrap has to be snug, sort of like making a papoose to swaddle an infant,” says Morgan, who adds that while a blanket could work in a pinch, you risk your pet getting tangled if it panics.
Another option is to wrap your pet in a ThunderShirt. This is a calming wrap that you can put on your pet during a stressful situation to help it feel calmer and less anxious. Its patented design works by applying gentle, constant pressure around your pet’s torso, and it has been shown to be 80% effective in reducing pet anxiety.