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AFTER LOCKDOWN: How to help your pet to overcome separation anxiety and adjust to "new" normal

Due to the COVID-19 virus many people have been spending significantly more time at home, working from home or in self-isolation. For many people pets have helped them to cope with the situation both in terms of providing company and exercise and the increased time with their owners has also benefited many pets.

However, now that lockdown rules have been eased, “normal” routines will return which for some pets means spending more time alone. Life could become difficult when the situation changes and the dog is forced to spend time without the company or attention of its human family, even if only for a few hours. This can especially effect animals who are insecure and fearful.

Separation can bring on anxiety and lead to behavioural issues. Some dogs also suffer from depression or hyper salivation because of being left on their own.

How to recognise if your dog is dealing with depression or anxiety?

  • Loss of interest in eating or changes in appetite might signal increased stress level
  • Stressed dogs might lick themselves non-stop as dogs often employ this behaviour to soothe themselves
  • Losing interest in walks and playtime might be a red flag
  • A dog that seems restless or unable to sleep might be dealing with a mood problem or high levels of anxiety, but excessive sleepiness might also be a sign that something is wrong
  • Some other habits or behaviours may include excessive barking, aggression, urinating in the house or losing a degree of obedience that was previously shown by the dog

Destructive behaviour is quite common with separation anxiety. The damage is usually located around entry and exit points, like doorways and windows, but dogs in a state of heightened anxiety are also at risk of harming themselves. Attempts to break out of dog crates, windows, and even doors can result in painful injuries and expensive veterinary treatments.

Some tips and tricks to help your pet:

  • Gradual training: As with training puppies, you can get an adult dog used to being alone again by first leaving the house for just a few minutes, extending it to 15 minutes, then half an hour etc, and slowly increasing this time. Gradually your pet will learn to trust that you will return home again.
  • Allow breaks: In between the games you are playing with your pet, ensure you have decent breaks. This downtime is necessary so that your pet gets enough rest and sleep.
  • Respect your pet’s rest: When your pet retreats to its sleeping place, this rest should be respected, and your pet should be allowed to rest. Make sure your children understand this too.
  • Design ‘self-entertainment’ activities: For example, design a feeding game in which your pet’s treat is given in the form of food balls or by using a Kong or something similar. Your pet will have to occupy themselves for a long time to get the food, distracting them while separated from you, and teaching them to entertain themselves.
  • Ignore your pet sometimes: It is healthy to ignore your pet sometimes, especially when they are demanding too much attention.
  • Dressing and undressing cues: Animals are clever at associating typical exit rituals leading up to their owners leaving the house. It’s a good idea to get them used to these by putting on shoes, a jacket and other outfits several times a day without leaving your home. Why not spend an evening watching television in the shoes you wear out!
  • Prepare for the impact on your pets: If special circumstances like the COVID-19 crisis or even a broken leg or an illness make it necessary for you to stay at home more than usual, you should absolutely use the time to dedicate extra attention to your pet. However, for their ongoing wellbeing, the attention must be well measured so that it does not result in future problems for your pet such as separation anxiety. Time together can be enjoyed by everyone with careful consideration.

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 If you suspect that your pet is suffering from depression or anxiety make sure all their basic needs are being met. Give them warmth, healthy food, comfortable bedding, and plenty of attention. You should also make sure that your dog knows what to expect and how you want them to behave. If the changed behaviour persists, contact your vet as they can also rule out any other medical conditions that could be causing your dog’s symptoms.

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