Empty Nest Syndrome Affects Pets, Too

By ABC News

Sep 10, 2011 7:21am

ABC News’  Christina Capatides reports:

As kids across the country head back to school and away to college this week, most Americans are sensitive to the fact that some parents may experience a form of “empty nest syndrome”: a range of symptoms and behaviorisms associated with separation anxiety.  So, that explains the scratches on the back door and the shredded throw pillows in the living room, right?

Well, not exactly.

That damage is a product of someone in your household experiencing empty nest syndrome, but it’s definitely not your mom.

What people may not initially realize is that household pets are also extremely susceptible to separation anxiety.

“Your dog probably knows the difference between the shoes you wear to work and the shoes you wear to take him for a walk,” says Dr. Debra Horwitz, a board certified veterinary behaviorist. “They’re very observant and they use those kinds of cues to determine what’s going to happen in their day. So, when everyone is home all summer and then, boom, they’re not anymore, that change in routine can be anxiety provoking for certain individuals and trigger a distress response, when the dog is home alone and separated from the ones that he or she is most attached to.”

In fact, animals may even be more shaken by a child’s sudden departure than parents because they have no way of being explicitly notified.

“Just because you know there’s going to be a change and you’re ready for it, doesn’t mean your pet does,” explains Dr. Horwitz. “The end of summer vacation often means that we can no longer sleep in or take leisurely morning walks with our pets. We have to get up, get ready and go straight to work instead. We don’t like those changes either, but we know they’re coming and we’re prepared for them.”

Pets, for their part, will exhibit this anxiety through a range of behavioral signs, including panting, pacing, whining, barking and destruction. In severe cases, Horwitz says, pets may experience a loss of appetite, even when their people are home.

However, the severity of the distress response really depends on the flexibility of the individual pet.

“Some people are really flexible,” says Horwitz.  “Things will happen to them at work and they will simply say, ‘O.K.,’ and adapt to them. Other people will see that their pencil box has been moved and scream, ‘Who was at my desk?!’ Animals are like that too. It is a part of the normal variation.”

Roseanna Salonia, a New Jersey native, says that her four-year-old Chihuahua Lulu always displays signs of distress when her son leaves for college.

“Lulu definitely notices all the packing and ‘getting ready’ when he goes off to college,” Salonia says. “Then, once he’s gone, she sleeps outside his bedroom door every night. And when I let her into his room, she runs under his bed or likes to sleep on one of his pillows …  she mopes around for a while every time he leaves, but it is most severe when he goes back to school after the summer.”

Depending on the flexibility of the pet, veterinary behaviorists recommend several behavioral and pharmaceutical interventions that can help him or her cope with the situation.

It is best to take preventative measures, before the actual change occurs. So, if you can, professionals recommend starting to wake up a bit earlier, packing a back pack or scheduling brief departures of about an hour, in the closing weeks of summer. These changes can help ease your pet into the upcoming transition.

Otherwise, it often helps to wake up a little early and either conduct a play session or take your dog for a morning walk, before you leave for work. This way, the dog is mentally stimulated and will spend more time resting when you are gone. Additionally, it is important to make departures low-key and matter of fact, rather than prolonging the act of actually walking out the door.

“Sometimes it also helps to leave a food-enhanced toy,” suggests Horwitz.

For dogs, this can take the form of a toy with a bit of peanut butter smeared on it. For cats, it is often helpful to hide treats throughout the house with varying degrees of discovery difficulty.

And for severe cases, there are two approved medications – Reconcile and Clomicalm – proven to be effective for the treatment of animals with separation anxiety, when combined with other behavioral modifications.

“These animals are not being spiteful or mad,” explains Horwitz. “They are anxious and they are really worried. And all the destructive things they might do are based on this stress and anxiety. It is our job to address that as quickly and humanely as we can.”

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