Pet Separation Anxiety: Your Questions Answered

Leaving your pet behind these holidays? Here's what you need to know to make sure they're happy and stress-free.

Those of us that have a beloved pet can know the stress that comes with going away on holidays and leaving your fur baby behind – for you and the animal. Whether your pet is staying in a kennel, a pet BnB, being looked after by a house sitter or with a friend, there are small things you can do that will make a big difference to ensure you and your pet have a stress-free holiday! Experts from Pawshake give us their top tips.

Stick to routine

It’s estimated that up to 80% of dogs suffer some form of separation anxiety in their owners' absence, but making sure your pet stays in some kind of routine can really help. “If a pet is used to being patted and fed in the morning and evening, it can cause them undue stress if suddenly they’re only getting fed once per day and have little contact with people,” says Ally Lester, Pawshake community manager and petsitter. “Stress in dogs in particular can turn quickly into something very destructive!”

It’s important to stick to routine, but also remember that cats and dogs react differently to change, says Dries Coucke, founder of Pawshake. “Cats are sensitive to routine and very much prefer to stay in their home environment while you're away. That's why many pet sitters offer home visits. 

Do I need to stick to the same food?

The short answer? Yes. “This is especially true for dogs: unlike humans, it's not a good idea to vary their daily meal,” says Dries. “Note that some dogs turn out to be difficult eaters when they're away from home. This is not something to worry about, but ask the pet sitter to keep an eye on it.”

Ally says it’s especially important in young or old pets, or pets with special needs that are on strict diets. “I recommend that if they’re staying out of home, cats are provided with their usual brand of litter as well.”

What if my pet is anxious?

Overt signs of separation anxiety affect about 15% of dogs and can include barking, destructive behaviour, howling or whining, trying to escape or urinating.  So what should you do if you know your dog is the anxious type? “Inform the pet sitter if your dog is really anxious, both for peace of mind of the sitter and your pet,” adds Dries. 

Tools to use 

“Bring the dog's kennel if that is its safe place. Be aware that really anxious dogs could start to destroy shoes and sofas to reduce stress if they're left alone for too long. Each dog is different, but overall anxious dogs should be left behind only in the hands of people with dog experience.”

“Dogs might feel comforted by having a piece of clothing that you’ve worn recently and haven’t washed, as scent is important to them,” says Ally. “You can also just try and distract them with a long walk or a good play!

“For cats you can try the same thing, but I also recommend Feliway, which is a spray or diffuser that sends out ‘feel good’ pheromones to keep cats calm.

“There’s an accessory on the market right now called a Thundershirt which can assist some dogs and cats with anxiety - it’s basically a snug little shirt for your pet to wear. You could try creating a home-made shirt and see how your pet deals with it before you leave.”

My pet is terrified during the New Years Eve fireworks! What can I do to help ease his anxiety?

“Many dogs are terrified of thunder and fireworks,” says Dries. “With the holiday season getting close, inform the sitter if your dog behaves unpredictably. When dogs get this anxious, it's important that they are in qualified hands, both in the interest of pets and people. There are unfortunately no quick wins (including fireworks CD's or medication) to solve this type of anxiety.

What questions should you ask someone before they pet sit for you?

“Before leaving your pet with a sitter, make sure you get the answer to this one key question,” says Dries. “Will this sitter act as a responsible pet parent?”

To make sure, get them to answer the following questions.

• Can she ensure the safety of the dog (always walk on a leash, a fenced yard...) and the people around it (kids, family members...)?
• Will she respect your canine training methods and house rules?
• Can she provide references and/or relevant experience or skills?
• Always arrange a meet & greet before the actual pet sitting period: maybe people will like each other, but your poodle might have a strong opinion about the sitters shih tzu.
• What sort of experience does she have with dogs/cats/etc?
• Where do they live? Is it easy for them to get to and from the house?
• Do they drive? What would they do if you needed to move the animal in an emergency?

Also share all relevant medical and behavioural information

“This includes obvious information like emergency contacts and specific conditions of your pet (epilepsy, required medication...),” says Dries.  “But also include less obvious information: if your dog tends to strongly pull the leash when seeing men in uniform or bicycles, make sure the sitter knows.”

What about if he/she needs to go to the vet?

“If you’re going away for an extended period, it’s a good idea to notify your vet in writing that you will be away and that your pet sitter is approved to seek treatment if necessary,” adds Alley. “Ask your particular vet about how they’d prefer to manage billing so that the pet sitter won’t be on the spot and out of pocket.

“Take the time to agree how an emergency situation should be handled: is the sitter allowed to take decisions up to a certain amount? Ask her if she's willing to pay upfront if needed or provide an emergency budget under a closed envelope,” says Dries. “No one wants discussions about money while away with your dog at the vet hospital.”

Should I check up on my pet?

“Great pet sitters will share text and photo updates during your holiday (if that's what you want of course). Sites like Pawshake even provide a free app that makes this process easy,” says Dries. “There’s nothing wrong with a phone call or message every few days to check in either,” adds Alley.

What if my pet isn’t coping?

“Dogs can sometimes be soothed by retreating to their crate or kennel, and draping a blanket over a crate can create a snug den for them to feel safe in,” says Alley. One way to help prevent separation anxiety is to make your departure as similar as possible to a regular day. Don’t make a huge fuss when you’re coming or going - I know that’s difficult though! We love our pets!”

Will pets respond to Skype?

The good news? Yes! “I’ve seen plenty of pictures and videos of cats and dogs recognising and ‘talking to’ their person on Skype,” says Alley. “Some pets will even sleep near the laptop afterwards! So cute.”

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