Feeling anxious is widely accepted part of the human experience but can it be felt by our pet counterparts? To break it down to its simplest form, anxiety is fear, which is a natural survival instinct experienced by all animals, including dogs and cats. Anxiety occurs when there is an anticipation of danger in the future that produces a fear-based reaction. For both humans and animals, we run into trouble when feelings of anxiousness don’t go away and require intervention.
Separation anxiety is the most common type of anxiety in dogs. Signs identified by the RSPCA include toileting in the house, destructiveness, excessive barking, digging, pacing or attempting to escape. Separation anxiety may be exacerbated by lockdowns in the pandemic when owners suddenly go back to work and there is a significant change in routine. This anxiety most likely occurs because dogs associate everything they value in life; food, walks, play, company, with people, according to Animal Behaviourist Kate Mornement.
Tips for decreasing the level of anxiety before departure include ignoring your dog directly prior to leaving and greeting them gently when you return. RSPCA recommends practicing habituation, which is dissociating departure cues from the actual leaving. For example, dogs associate picking up keys with leaving and this makes them anxious. To combat this, you could pick up the keys when you are not actually leaving the house so the dog learns this doesn’t mean anything. Counterconditioning is another method of reducing anxiety which involves developing an association between leaving your dog alone and good things. This may include leave a kong type stuffed toy with food when leaving the house that takes up to half an hour to consume. A delicious distraction!
It’s important that dogs have lots of mental and physical stimulation, just like humans this is great for their mental health. You can achieve this through making sure your dog exercises, has appropriate chew toys, healthy food, play time and the company of other dogs. If the anxiety appears to be severe or unable to treat make sure you contact your vet.