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Back-to-school time spells separation anxiety for many pets

September 9, 2009 |  1:59 pm

Pug

With the end of summer comes a day that many parents have been looking forward to and many children have been dreading for months: The first day of school.  But one family member that's often overlooked in the hubbub is the family pet -- which is a shame, because back-to-school time is among the toughest parts of the year for pets suffering from separation anxiety.

How do you know if your pet has separation anxiety?  Many animals, particularly dogs, act out and become destructive when left alone.  (Our own ordinarily well-behaved pup, Django, seemed to make a mission of systematically destroying our favorite books when we first began leaving him home alone.) 

Many pets afflicted with separation anxiety display behaviors like following their owners from room to room; displaying frantic greeting behaviors when their owners arrive home; appearing to dislike or resent being left alone in a fenced outdoor yard; and exhibiting excitement, depression or anxiety when they realize their person is about to leave, according to the Humane Society of the United States

Besides a sudden disruption to its normal schedule (like a child with whom it's spent a great deal of uninterrupted time during summer vacation), a number of outside influences can cause a pet to develop separation anxiety.  These can include the stress of being in an animal shelter or kennel (a common culprit for rescue pets), the addition of a new pet to the family or a move, among other things.

Animal-adoption website Petfinder offers these tips to help owners combat their pets' separation anxiety:

-- Start early: If you have a new pet, you can begin anti-separation-anxiety training right away. Don't make a big deal about leaving, and only leave him alone for short periods of time at first. When you come home, simply greet him and return to your routine.

-- Promote independence: Adults and children can actually over-bond with their pets by spending every moment with them. While your family should certainly show love and affection to your animal, remember that independence is healthy. Place your dog in a sit-stay or down-stay to keep him from following you and your family members around the house, and then praise him quietly when you return to the room he's in.

-- Invest in entertainment: Leave something to divert your pet's attention when the family is at work and school, such as a pet-sitting video. Another great product is the Kong toy, which keeps dogs busy as they search for the treats inside.

-- Exercise with your dog before you leave: Ask your children to play or exercise with your dog before heading off to school. A tired dog is less likely to experience stress when you leave.

-- Practice gradual departures: Collect your belongings and say your goodbyes, but only leave for a few minutes. Increase these training trips by five or 10 minutes at a time. After a couple of days, your pet should be comfortable being alone for a few hours.

The Humane Society also suggests leaving a recently-worn clothing item with your pet, since your scent may help soothe him or her.  For more severe cases of anxiety, leaving the animal at a doggie day-care facility or with a trusted friend or family member may help to reduce your pet's stress level.

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: A young boy plays with his pet pug.  Credit: Los Angeles Times

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