Excessive barking, "accidents" and destructive behavior can all be ways of saying "Don't leave me!" Here's how to help your pets feel at ease.

By Ardenis Perez • Illustration Istvan Banyai

If you’ve ever come home to a complaint about barking or an “accident” from your cat, your pet may have separation anxiety. Dogs and cats of any age can become panicked and destructive when left home alone. “Nearly all separation anxiety results from hyper-attachment to one or more owners,” says Elizabeth Stelow, DVM, chief of the Behavior Service at the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at UC Davis. Abrupt life changes, such as a recent move or a shift in a pet parent’s work schedule, can lead to distress, which animals may express by chewing up household items or scratching door frames. Here’s what you can do to help your furry friends feel more at ease.

Practice Short Absences

Introduce gradual departures to make pets less sensitive to your leaving. “Exit for however long your pet can be left home alone comfortably and then come back in,” says Malena DeMartini, a certified dog behavior consultant. If you’re unsure, start with a few seconds and build from there. As you slowly increase the length of time, continually check that your pet remains relaxed. Do this exercise five days a week for a total of about 20 minutes per day.

Use Interactive Feeders

While pets are in their most comfortable area, give them a food dispensing toy like a Kong Wobbler (from $13) filled with treats. Leave them the feeder as you depart to create a positive association with you walking out the door.

Be Cautious with Crating

“Some dogs are already anxious about being left alone and may become even more anxious when placed in a crate,” says DeMartini. This can lead to confinement anxiety—the fear of being in an enclosed environment. If your dog finds crating comforting, lucky you! If not, install a baby gate instead to keep your dog in one area.

Consider Medication

If your pet’s anxiety gets worse or you don’t notice a change, your vet may prescribe anti-anxiety or anti-depression medication. “Don’t view medication as a last resort,” says DeMartini. “It can help with the problem sooner rather than later.”

Rely on Technology

See what’s really going on when your pets are home alone. Using video to record their behavior while you’re away can help you spot other signs of separation anxiety, including:

✓ Panting

✓ Pacing

✓ Drooling

✓ Extensive barking or meowing

✓ Excessive grooming in cats

✓ Escape attempts

Did you know? Nearly 20% of the nation’s 80 million dogs suffer from separation anxiety.

Source: Nick Dodman, DACVB, of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University