Separation Anxiety: Possible Fallout of COVID-19

Dogs with an unhealthy attachment to their owner can develop separation anxiety.

The past few months have ushered in a brand new world with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and our response to it. Many of us have lost jobs, are currently working from home, or forced to self-isolate because of the virus.

In an attempt to flatten the infection curve, our home life looks a lot different than it did pre-COVID and our pets are the unlikely beneficiaries of this new normal. We are staying home and spending much more time with our pets. At our clinic we have seen an increase in the number of pets being purchased or adopted because they bring us comfort in these uncertain times. I predict that our recent societal lifestyle changes will bring an increase in separation anxiety in our pets. 

As our governments and health officials relax the COVID restrictions and we return to working away from home, our pets are going to be shocked to not have us around 24/7.

What is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a group of behavioural abnormalities that results from an unhealthy attachment of a pet to their owners. A pet with separation anxiety gets stressed and anxious when left alone or is separated from their person or family. Animals can begin exhibiting unwanted behaviours to try and reduce the stress they feel. Although we most commonly see separation anxiety in dogs, we can also see it in cats — especially solitary ones.

Less confident dogs are more likely to develop separation anxiety.

Signs of Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety manifests in several symptoms including: 

  • Vocalizing – Howling, whining, excessive barking/yowling: dog and cat
  • Drooling and pacing: dog
  • Destructive chewing, scratching and digging: dog and cat
  • Inappropriate urination and defecation: dog and cat
  • Trying to escape through doors or windows: dog
  • Excessive grooming/vomiting hair balls: cat
Found more commonly in dogs, cats can also develop separation anxiety.

These behaviours are only linked to separation anxiety if they occur when the owner is in the process of leaving or is absent from their pet. It is very important to remember that your dog or cat is not acting out, but suffering from an anxiety related condition and they should never be punished for these behaviours as this will only make their anxiety worse.

Causes or Predispositions for Separation Anxiety

The causes of separation anxiety are multifactorial but they all stem from the fact that our pets are social animals.

Pets feel uncomfortable when they are separated from their social groups for long periods of time. That uncomfortable feeling can lead to anxiety and stress. When that anxiety becomes too overwhelming your pet may start to engage in poor behaviours to alleviate their stress. 

Certain animal breeds are more at risk of developing anxiety related issues. Breeds known for higher intelligence or high-energy levels need more mental and physical exercise to keep anxiety at bay. If your pet doesn’t engage in a job or have a physical outlet on a daily basis, they are more prone to development of separation anxiety.Small breed dogs are also at higher risk as they are commonly more fearful due to their size. 

Breeds such as the German Shepherd, Bichon Frise, Toy Poodle, Cocker Spaniel, Chihuahua, Border Collie and German Shorthaired Pointer are some of the dog breeds at risk for developing anxiety. Asian breeds of cat such as Siamese and Burmese also experience separation anxiety more frequently than other feline breeds.

There are breed predispositions for separation anxiety.


Prevention is definitely the preferred way to deal with separation anxiety. If puppies and kittens can be socialized and conditioned to tolerate or even enjoy being alone, the problem can be avoided all together. Your veterinarian can help with training suggestions at your first puppy or kittens’ health check.

Crate training for dogs is a great start. Once a puppy has learned that his crate is his safe place, then make it enjoyable for him to be there with a chew toy or a play toy with treats inside it. Leave the room and allow your puppy to experience being alone without feeling stress. Always reward calm behaviours and ignore any indications of clingy-ness or anxiety. Pet owners will feel the need to console a pet that is feeling stressed, but this just reinforces their unwanted behaviour.

Basic obedience training is also extremely useful. Teaching your puppy to “sit/stay” and working up to leaving the room while your puppy is in “stay,” you develop their confidence for being left alone.

Do not act overly excited when you return to your puppy, as you want to reinforce their calm behaviours. Create a routine that involves regular absences from the house for short periods of time that you know your puppy can tolerate, then gradually work up to longer periods of time away. Make sure you do not make a big fuss when you return, and only recognize your pet’s attention when they are calm and respectful.

Distraction with toys and treats is a good way to combat separation anxiety.


Treatment of separation anxiety is usually more challenging especially if the condition becomes severe. Techniques for treatment include counter conditioning/desensitization, reinforcement of calm behaviours, providing adequate exercise and mental stimulation, and confidence training. 

Crate training and obedience training are important first steps. Much like puppy training these techniques build confidence in your dog to being left alone under controlled conditions. Counter conditioning and desensitizing your pet to the routines/cues you unconsciously exhibit when you leave the house is important. You can start by acting out the things you normally do before leaving and then you don’t leave. This desensitizes your pet to your cues and doesn’t allow them to ramp up their anxiety when they know you are leaving. Provide your pet with calm alone time by providing them with a distraction while you are away from them. 

A chew toy or a toy with treats can engage them while you quietly leave them alone. Begin by leaving the room for short periods of time, then slowly build toward greater times and distances away. Make sure your pet was successful in staying relaxed in your absence before increasing the challenge. If you need to be away from your pet for an extended period of time during this training process, consider a pet sitter or doggy day-care to prevent losing any gains you have made with your training. 

Cats can be trained in similar ways. Start by enhancing their environment with toys or by hiding treats they need to “hunt.” Perches near windows and climbing trees are a good way to prevent boredom for cats. Make sure indoor cats get adequate exercise and schedule playtime every day to expend extra energy. Leaving the TV or radio on while you are away from the house can also provide comfort to some cats.

In a worst-case scenario, anti-anxiety medications may be necessary to keep your pet from harming themselves or becoming overwhelmed as you train them. 

Behaviour training to deal with separation anxiety can be complicated and requires a lot of patience and I have only touched on the basics here. If your pet is showing signs of separation anxiety or you anticipate that they will once you are no longer house bound due to COVID-19, please contact your veterinarian. There are good resources available for dealing with this problem and your veterinarian can guide you in the process.


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