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separation anxiety

All by myself

Do our pets miss us when they’re left on their own? And if so, how does it affect them? Deirdre Vine looks at the issue of separation anxiety.

You’re about to leave the house when you catch your pet’s eye. Is that an imploring ‘don’t leave me’ look being directed your way? Oris your own regret at leaving your companion on her own being reflected back at you? This is a familiar scenario for pet owners everywhere.

‘Dogs are as social a species as we are,’ reveals Dr John Bradshaw, an anthrozoologistat Bristol University who has studied the relationships between humans and animals for more than 25 years. ‘We have selected them to be highly dependent on us so they can be made obedient – why is it surprising that dogs don’t like being left alone?’

But while Dr Bradshaw says all mammals are probably able to experience loneliness, they don’t necessarily feel it in the same way that people do. ‘I don’t think that non-human animals are capable of thinking about their emotions in the same way we do,’ he argues. ‘You and I might think, “Oh, I felt a bit lonely yesterday so I’ll go and see somebody today,” whereas a dog would have felt lonely at the time, but can’t cogitate on it.’

What’s more, just as there are gregarious people who struggle to spend time on their own and self-sufficient types who are content with their own company, it stands to reason that our companion animals have different needs and temperaments

Degrees of separation

What to do if your pet seems lonely…

    Place a bird feeder outside a window for your cat. Feathered visitors will keep him stimulated.
  • Many pets get bored and may destroy possessions just for something to do. Divert them with chew-toys or food puzzles.
  • Take a few short, planned absences so that your dog becomes familiar with them.
  • If your pet misbehaves while you’re out, avoid reacting badly or punishing them: it will only make them more anxious.
  • If any dramatic changes in behaviour occur, have your pet checked by a vet for underlying physical problem.
  • Unresolved behavioural problems can be referred on to animal behaviourists.
  • A dog is more inclined to relax if he has been exercised, gone to the toilet and fed a small meal before you go out.

Kim Hunt from Surrey says her Airedale Terrier, Lily, wasn’t one for coping with being on her own. Boredom, pent-up energy and loneliness always seemed to get the better of her.

‘Lily would get restless and whiny as I prepared to leave,’ reveals Kim. ‘I’d come home to find she’d gnawed at the doors and hardly touched her food. That’s when I decided to speak to an animal behaviourist.’

Dr Bradshaw says Lily’s behaviour is typical. In his bestselling book In Defence of Dogs, he reveals the inner lives of our canine friends and presents research that shows many more dogs experience separation disorders – varying degrees of unease when left alone – than people realise.

And since separation, by definition, is something that happens when no one is around, it’s not surprising that only its obvious signs – for instance chewing, messing – come to an owner’s attention.

Separation disorders make up as many as one in three case loads for clinical behaviourists. Dr Bradshaw points out that, once established, such disorders can be hard to cure but they can be prevented much more easily.

‘The distress could be virtually eliminated if every young dog, before being left alone for any length of time, were trained to expect that departures lead to reunions.

‘When your dog sees you fetch the car keys, for instance, he may become anxious because he associates it with a period of loneliness. The trick is to link such cues to good outcomes – affection and your return.’

Relieving anxiety

Bunny buddies

‘Every bunny needs some bunny to love,’ says a Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund (RWAF) poster, a reminder that rabbits crave the company of at least one of their own kind to satisfy their social nature.

Studies show that lone bunnies have high stress levels. Rabbits evolved to live in large groups, and pet rabbits are not far removed from their wild cousins who forage together.

The Victorians first kept rabbits in hutches – a short-term storage solution before they went to the cooking pot – but bunnies aren’t meant to live in a confined space (in the wild they cover an area equivalent to 30 football pitches). The RWAF recommends a minimum hutch size of 6 x 2 x 2ft, with a lawn pen and toys to provide stimulation.

For advice on rabbit companionship, download the RWAF leaflet Bunny Buddies: Why Every Rabbit Needs A Friend from rabbitwelfare.co.uk

Dr Bradshaw advises this routine: pick up keys, go to door, praise dog and repeat. Go out for a bit longer each time you do this, before returning and praising your dog. If he shows anxiety, don’t reward – instead go back a stage. Your dog will learn that these events predict your return (good outcome), not departure (bad outcome).

It’s tempting to think that acquiring a pal for your lonely dog might be a solution, but it might cause double trouble. Dr Bradshaw recalls instances in which ‘the new dog learns from the anxious old dog and thinks, “Oh, this is what happens when people go out,” and the result is pandemonium.’

However, he says that most of the time a second dog has no effect at all, because ‘science suggests that the bond to people is different to the bond with other dogs, and what the dog really wants is the company of its owner’. Yet Hamish Dawson from Edinburgh says getting a canine companion proved to be ‘an asset’ – and he now has two adorable Dachshunds, Freddy and Frieda.

‘A couple of years ago, when I had only Freddy, I was out a lot during the day,’ he says. ‘Freddy became very listless but my vet ruled out any physical problem.

‘I wanted to get him a chum so I followed the vet’s advice: get a dog of the opposite sex, as one of the same sex will create competition, and get a dog about the same age with the same energy level. Freddy and Frieda are the best of pals and leaving them on their own has never caused any problems.’

Lonely cats

So what can you do?

For practical help on avoiding and dealing with separation problems, visit the Blue Cross website for search for Alone at Home: bluecross.org.uk

The Feline Advisory Bureau has information sheets written by vet nurse and cat behaviourist Vicky Halls on over-attachment and other bonding problems, and on how to make your home more cat friendly: fabcats.org

Experts at Bristol University have spent years researching separation-related behaviour. Read about their findings and the ways in which you can help to prevent distress on the RSPCA site; search for ‘separation-related behaviour’: rspca.org.uk John Bradshaw’s In Defence of Dogs is now available in paperback (Penguin, £8.99)

We all know cats enjoy human company but also like to spend time on their own. Yet this doesn’t mean they are always happy to accept being alone.

Journalist Virginia Blackburn is the owner of a shorthaired Persian named Mrs Peel. ‘I’m told that when I go away, she won’t settle,’ says Virginia. ‘My return is always greeted by half an hour’s purring, then half an hour’s sulking. It’s as if she’s saying, “I’m so happy to see you but how dare you leave me!”’

Zaila Dunbar, winner of the 2012 Petplan Vet of the Year award, says: ‘Cats get bored on their own, which adds to territorial stress, tendency to over groom, obesity and other behavioural issues such as scratching furniture. You may not have any idea until your cat can’t cope any more and starts to pee on the carpet. ’Toileting issues are your cat’s cry for help, so seek advice early – or, better still, don’t wait until you see a problem.’

Zaila says changing how we feed cats can make a big difference: ‘If your cat has to work a little for their food, they will be less prone to overeating and more content. Cats have evolved to hunt 12 to 15 times a day, which involves frequent small bursts of intense activity, so I would recommend using forage-feeding and interactive toys, such as a Catmosphere ball, for all dry food.

‘Nina Ottosson has developed some great, stimulating feeding toys. You can find these at nina-ottosson.com. Also, the Cat-Friendly Home handout at fabcats.org gives homemade food-foraging methods. Even old, set-in-their-way felines can take to this in time, so don’t give up on finding a solution.