Friday, 18 September 2009

Separation Anxiety and your Pet

Separation Anxiety and your Pet

Separation anxiety is a psychological condition in which an individual experiences heightened levels of anxiety regarding separation from others to whom the individual has a strong attachment to (1)

Separation anxiety is an enormous problem with the domestic animal, whether it is a prey species such as the horse or predators such as the dog and cat. It can lead to dangerous situations, re-homing and poor health and so needs to be resolved quickly and effectively with every species.

Before a problem can be fixed completely, it needs to be understood.

The Cat

Separation Anxiety is well recognised in dogs, but not so much when it comes to the cat. Contrary to popular belief, cats are also highly social creatures, instinctually living in large colonies, grooming, resting, playing and so on together…even nursing each others young! And again, where there is a lack of other cats to ‘befriend’ they will form strong bonds with people and with other animals to fill this innate desire for social contact.

The Dog

Looking at separation anxiety from your dogs’ perspective, the canine is a pack animal and the cat would and therefore a highly social creature. Instinctually relying on the pack to survive, finding food, water, reproducing, staying warm and safe and so on. Where there is a lack of other dogs to ‘befriend’ they will form strong bonds with people and with other animals to fill this innate desire for social contact.

The Horse

We all know that horses are a social species, designed to live in a herd. As their brains are ‘hardwired’ through millions of years of evolution telling them that staying with other horses is the way to survive, it is understandable that we come across problems when trying to ride our horses out alone. They too will accept even a sheep as a herd member as they are so in need of companionship for 24 hours a day.

In Both Cases…

Although much more research needs to be done in this area to understand the causes of separation anxiety in the domestic animal, there is evidence for both genetic and environmental factors to be involved. Being weaned early, moving yards or homes, previously being kennelled, sudden traumas or not being socialised (and this means to members of their own species) gradually and appropriately earlier in life are all common triggers.

This syndrome could be an important consideration for dealing with (2) …

- Excessive vocalisation
- Flight behaviours such as bolting, rearing, spinning and so on
- Panic Disorders
- Stable vices
- Destructive behaviour
- Inappropriate Urinating and House Soiling
- Self Mutilation and Over-Grooming
- Escaping
- Diarrhoea
- Loss Of Appetite
- Vomiting and Fabric Chewing


Take action before any signs of anxiety develop.

1. Socialising your pet gradually and appropriately helps them to develop a broad ‘safety base’ and therefore cope better with changes during adulthood. PLEASE NOTE: This is not through common ‘puppy socialisation’ classes as this can cause heightened deep-set fear in many cases, please contact a positive behaviourist for details.

2. Maintaining a natural environment within the home, i.e. allowing appropriate exploration, exercise, eating, grooming and sleeping behaviours, as the animal would in the wild. This simple enrichment relieves restriction and therefore stress within the home, having calming affects deep within the body.

3. Keep the same routine as much as possible, allowing your pet to predict what will happen in his or her environment. This will maintain feelings of safety and help build a safe base to be able to cope with the domestic world more effectively.

Overcoming Separation Anxiety

Separation Anxiety is a deep-set behavioural problem and needs to be worked through gradually with a detailed understanding of the ethology of the species and underlying physiology involved. It takes time and unfortunately there is no quick answer.

Many veterinary surgeons prescribe anti-anxiety medications, which can be effective in the short-term, however long-term use brings with it severe side-effects to health and mind and therefore would never be an advisable option.

The Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Approach (3) is the most effective and indeed healthier option to take. Opting for a step-by-step method with a qualified animal behaviourist is the best way to ensure life-long success.

To give a brief example, although the treatment will depend on the species the severity of the problem and the individual, after ensuring that an appropriately enriched environment is set-up and anxiety is stabilised, you can begin to gradually expose your pet to brief separations.

After every brief separation, initially for only seconds, reward your pet through positive reinforcement to teach him or her that it is ok, in fact good, to be away for short periods. Little by little extend this separation time and distance spent apart, rewarding any signs of relaxation.

Be sure to stick with it and don’t expect any immediate results and make sure you receive detailed advice from a qualified behaviourist using positive reinforcement rather than punishment techniques.

For more detailed information and a step-by-step plan to guide you to success, please do not hesitate to contact me as I am always happy to help.



1.Bowlby, J. (1960) Separation Anxiety, Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 41, pp.89-113
2.Gittelman R, Klein DF. (1984) Relationship between separation anxiety and panic and agoraphobic disorders, Psychopathology. 17 Suppl 1, pp.56-65
3.Beck, A. (1976) Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders, International Universities Press, United States


Katie B Wade is a fully qualified and experienced animal behaviourist, working alongside veterinary clinics, rescue centres, societies, breeders as well as individual owners to assist with various aspects of animal behaviour and training. With professional experience handling, training, breeding and rehabilitating the competition horse, Katie went on to study a degree in Psychology and then on to specialise in Equine Behaviour with The Natural Animal Centre. Katie provides scientifically sound advice to the general public, building a bridge between academic research and practical horse ownership.

Katie B Wade

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