Separation Anxiety in Pandemic Puppies

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The pandemic brought a roller coaster of emotions for everyone, which eventually extended to our faithful companions as well.

The new challenges of confinement reminded us of the importance of family relationships, and while some had the opportunity to strengthen the emotional bonds with their pets, others took advantage and increased the family with a new puppy.

Why a new puppy during the pandemic?

Besides endless adventures and happy memories, pets bring us comfort and companionship on a daily basis. Therefore, the increase in demand during the past year is understandable.

Many decided to buy or adopt a new member of the family, hoping to relieve all the stress of restrictive measures and consequent lack of the usual social interactions – an absolute guarantee for an unconditional friend, one to share joys and anguish, and also a way to leave the house and go outside.

At what cost to them?

Some of these new “pandemic puppies” have grown up in the constant company of their pet parents, many working remotely from home, experiencing virtually no major separation.

But the return to the office for some and adaptation to “normal” routines for others has already started and its effects are beginning to appear.

After all this time, deprived of the proper socialization, learning, and fundamental experiences for good behavior, the once “babies” are now “teenagers” – rebellious, disobedient, and worse, spending much more time alone at home.

How are they affected by all these changes?

There has been a substantial increase in the number of dogs adopted or acquired during the pandemic, that are now (or will be soon) suffering from separation-related problems.

Although it is one of the most studied dog behavioral problems, the fact is that its development is not simple to predict or avoid.

However, it is easy to understand that changes arise when the last months of their lives have been spent in the constant company of their humans. Some even in a “bubble of four walls” with no experience of socialization with other people and animals.

There are already many reported cases with pet parents in despair. For the most part, we note common roots – first experience ever of a new puppy in their lives and little understanding of the importance of these first few months in their long-term behavior.

And the result is plain to see – a significant increase in the demand for obedience classes in dog training schools. But how many will be able to complete the process  and reach optimal retraining? How many will want to give up due to exhaustion – emotional, physical or economical?

What is separation anxiety? What are the most common signs?

Canine separation anxiety reflects a state of considerable distress over the absence or perceived absence of the pet parent.

Clinical signs are variable but the most common are associated with vocalizations, destructive behaviors and erratic eliminations at home. Also frequent are excessive panting and salivation, gastrointestinal signs (such as vomiting and/or diarrhea), excitability or, in opposition, complete inactivity periods, self-trauma, and lack of appetite when alone.

Besides this, there are animals that end up developing a whole sequence of behavioral traits – increasing anxiety as their parent pets get ready to leave the house, euphoria (and even hysteria) at the moment of their return and difficult detachment whenever they are at home (they become true “shadows” and demand permanent attention).

How do I know if my new puppy is suffering when left alone?

These manifestations are not entirely unique to cases of separation anxiety and can occur simultaneously in other conditions involving emotional states of fear or frustration.

Some dogs are just reactive to other external stimuli such as neighborhood noises. Other dogs may never have been properly educated or trained for correct urine and feces eliminations. Many develop most of the signs in an intense way, but others manifest them in isolation and with less exuberance.

It will not always be easy for pet parents to relate some behaviors or even to be aware of them, since they may never know about the vocalizations that occur when they leave the house.

However, videotaping the moments following the departure of the pet parents and other moments during their absence remains one of the best methods to understand the puppy’s behavior.

Besides collecting other elements of the puppy’s history and daily routines, these images will be of extreme importance for the veterinarian team to make a good evaluation of the case and a correct diagnosis.

How can I prevent my new puppy from feeling bad when left alone at home?

First of all, and before we get a new canine member for the family, we should always research and gather as much information about the breed, personality, specific needs and activity requirements, among many other things. But even after the new puppy arrives, it is never too late to do so!

Furthermore, it is essential that we understand that puppies growing up may still have normal behaviors such as digging, nipping, barking, scratching and jumping, because they serve a function or purpose. We should not label them as good or bad, but rather try to know the reasons behind and allow them to express themselves without causing harm where we don’t want it.

Likewise, whenever their behaviors are the appropriate/desired ones, we must reward them!!! And do it regularly and consistently.

It is also important that we know how to recognize their state of mind through their body language, so that we don’t force them into situations of discomfort or distress. Reducing their stress levels through proper environmental enrichment will make all the difference, believe us!

And whenever possible, we should prepare any change in their routine with time, so that they can gradually adapt. Obviously the sudden routines of pandemic and confinement have proven to be a challenge for everyone. But we cannot neglect those who have been there to cheer us up when the situation was extremely difficult. We owe the new pups of this pandemic a solution to minimize their discomfort now that their world has changed and ours is beginning to return to normal.

What if my puppy is diagnosed with separation anxiety?

Less complex situations may benefit from one (or more) of the following options:

  • Prepare an area at home where they can be as comfortable as possible, with appropriate environmental enrichment, and gradually try to get them alone in that space without our presence (and for increasing periods of time);
  • Put them in a daycare, since them enjoy to be with other dogs and it is a space of our trust;
  • Provide a dog-sitting service, or leave them with a friend or relative during our absence, as long as they’re available;
  • Or take them to work (if possible and if they behave correctly for the space).

Many of these can be a good solution to dramatically reduce our puppy’s anxiety levels but should be recognized as short-term considerations.

Depending on the individual situation of each one, many cases will require the use of a good qualified trainer and more specific forms of treatment including pheromones, food supplements and some even anxiolytic medication. Always with proper monitoring and advice from the veterinary team!

The coming months or years may reveal a larger than usual population of new puppies who struggle with being left alone at home. But one thing is certain – prevention will always be better.

So we must teach and prepare them so that they know how to be home alone. Early recognition of any extreme signs of insecurity and discomfort will allow us to avoid an escalation of the situation that, in a worst case scenario, will always be more difficult to reverse.

The welfare of these new puppies of the pandemic remains a priority and our responsibility. We must honor the commitment made the moment we brought them home and fill their lives with love, respect and happiness!

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