Back to School Blues

Back to School Blues - Dr Sally J Foote
Do you know your dog’s signs of separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety can show up in various ways.  When school starts up again, you can may see your dog and cat acting up in naughty ways or showing signs of anxiety.  Dogs and cats live by routines.  They feel the secure and happy when feeding time, walks and play time are all on schedule.   When the family schedule changes, their schedule changes. This shift in routines can cause stress in our pets.  Back to school season means more hustle and bustle in the morning, less walks and playtime.  Pets associate the backpacks, school buses, and children studying mean less time for walks and play.  This change in routine and separate time from family causes the anxiety.

Mild separation anxiety will show as pacing, gathering up socks and putting them in the pet bed, whining, or even house soiling. Cats may meow more, avoid using the litter box, knock things off the shelves or have more spats with other house cats.  The change in routine is creating stress – how do we help these pets?

If your pet is showing signs of high anxiety, please contact your veterinarian as soon as possible.  Chewing their way out of a crate, soiling in the home, not eating or pacing and panting are signs of severe anxiety in a pet. The stress hormones increase, and this can have a harmful impact on the heart, the kidneys, skin and intestinal track.   Mediations, supplements and a behavior plan are needed immediately.  You can help by establishing new routines and sticking with them despite the business of back to school.  Life is predictable when there is a routine, and that predictability reduces anxiety.  Start by creating regular feeding times.  Take your dog on a walk every morning.  Sniffing new smells and the sustained exercise of walking settles the body and the brain preventing boredom.  You may need to get up earlier or assign a task to an older child as part of life’s responsibilities.  When you get home, walk your dog again!  Cats need play time routines too.   Play with your cat for 10 minutes every day.  Be sure the homework and backpacks are not crowding out perching places for your cats.

Back to School Blues - Foote and Friends
Even if your walks are shorter, keep on schedule with the walks

Brewing health problems may be aggravating separation anxiety in older pets.  Your older dog may have trouble rising on that slick kitchen floor to move out of the way of the busy kitchen.  Your older cat may hiss as kids rush past in the hallway. Arthritis, poor vision, deafness may have crept up so the difficulty of moving away from the hustle and bustle increases agitation and anxiety.  If you have a dog or cat over the age of 7 acting irritated or anxious make an appointment immediately to have a check up and screen for early aging problems.  A video of how your dog or cat is acting during the busy times helps the veterinarian tremendously to understand the behavior and ability of this older animal.

Anxiety is triggered by the sounds, movement, location, people or objects in an area that tell the animal something unpleasant is going to happen.  If the sight of the backpack causes your cat to run out of the room, then the backpack is the trigger.  If the school bus arriving in front of your house causes your dog to pace, and whine then the school bus is the trigger.  Removing or reducing how much the pet sees the triggers is the first step to improve behavior.  The second step is to toss treats, or a toy to provide a pleasant experience when this trigger is present.  For example, your cat will get a saucer of canned food when your kids come in with the back packs.  Your dog will get a squeaky toy tossed away from the window when the school bus arrives.  Now fun things happen when the trigger is present, changing the meaning of the trigger.  If your pet will not eat, or play at these times, the anxiety is high and medication, supplement or other aids are needed to help the pet calm to learn.

In veterinary medicine we use medication to facilitate learning.  A dog who is so upset that it cannot stop pacing needs medication to learn to focus on the food puzzle when you are gone.  When they eat out of the food puzzle, they make the association that good things happen when you leave.

Back to School Blues - Foote & Friends
A fun food puzzle can help dogs of all ages

If they do not eat, they cannot make the association because they are too anxious.  This is where medication plans need to be tailored to the pet, according to the age and health of the pet and the degree of anxiety. After the animal has learned to be calm in the face of the triggers, medication can be weaned down.  The new routine does not stop – this routine is what creates the calm now.  Some pets need to stay on medication even when following the plan.  Be sure to stay in contact with your veterinarian, and any behaviorist you are working with.

Have a safe and happy school year to all our families.

Dr Sally J Foote CABC-IAABC      copy write 2019

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