Like children, pet kids are susceptible to changes in family dynamics. Sometimes, stress can cause them to act out in unexpected ways. Changes in the household, such as separation and ‘empty nest syndrome’, can be particularly painful for companion animals. A dog has every reason to believe that their pack (humans and canines alike) will remain intact. When one member essentially ‘disappears’, it can lead to significant pet stress.
The study of behavior in companion animals, and how they handle stress, is a rapidly developing field, most extensively in the lives of military dogs. Just like their human-soldier counterparts, after combat duty, canines have demonstrated clear symptoms of PTSD. Some estimates indicate that more than 5% of the approximately 650 military dogs deployed by American combat forces have been diagnosed with canine PTSD.
Much like human PTSD sufferers, not all dogs exhibit the same degree of symptoms. Some dogs have drastic changes in temperament, ultimately becoming aggressive, clingy or timid. Some become hyper-vigilant which can increase anxiety. Others will actively avoid situations in which they were previously comfortable … like the tasks they were trained to perform, often resulting in their retirement from military service.
Companion animals living in households going through separation or the loss of a family member can be similarly traumatized. They can develop separation anxiety, personality changes and depression. Consequently, they may manifest negative behaviors, such as destruction, timidity or aggression. Pet anxiety can be expressed in a variety of ways, including pacing, panting, whining, destruction, loss of appetite, digging, chewing and excessive barking. The sad fact is that pet kids may be more traumatized by the sudden departure of a family member because they have no way of being prepared for the change.
Another unfortunate outcome of changing human relational dynamics is relinquishment. I know that many vets have received calls from newly separated couples who see no other option than to end their relationship with their dog or cat as well.
If you or someone you know is facing challenging times that could affect a pet negatively, here are some tips to minimize the impact and thus reduce the stress on your furry family member.
Even though the loss of a pet during separation can be more heart-wrenching than losing money or material belongings, dogs and cats are still considered property in the eyes of the law.
If retaining guardianship of your pet kid means the world to you, consider giving up something valuable, such as a car or cash, to gain full custody. If both sides refuse to budge on custody, draft a visitation plan you both can live with. Take into account post-separation schedules and living situations to determine who is better suited to be the primary caretaker. That individual must agree to completely care for the pet’s needs and make sure vaccinations are up-to-date and other medical care is provided.
If you are considering the possibility of relinquishing your dog or cat, try to remember that things will inevitably get better. Chances are that you will be happier with your pet in the long run. We all know that they can be reliable sources of comfort during rough times.
For Empty Nesters
Consider preventive measures before a grown child flies the coop for college. If your pet kids are accustomed to someone always being home, but will soon have to spend periods alone, schedule brief outings for yourself (anywhere from 15-60 minutes). These ritual changes can help ease a pet into the upcoming transition. Wake up a bit earlier to give yourself time to play with your schedule, to see what might fit your new routine best.
Once your child has gone, make time in the morning to either take your dog for a walk or play with your dog. Either activity will mentally stimulate and physically exhaust your dog so that more time will be spent resting when you have to leave the house. Make departures as low-key as possible. When it’s time to go, adopt the attitude that it’s really no big deal, and quietly leave.
Before leaving, stuff a treat-safe toy with food or a tasty snack. For a dog, try a smart toy that dispenses treats or kibble. For cats, no toy is required, simply hide treats at various locations throughout the house.
There are several over-the-counter products created to help lower stress in companion animals. For severe cases, there are a few options available with a prescription, such as Clomicalm, Reconcile and Xanax. These medications can help with animals that are suffering from anxieties that can’t be addressed by behavior therapy alone.
Regardless of the scenario, talk to your veterinarian about what will work best for your pet kid, given your unique situation.
Thank you for all you do to make the world a better place for companion animals.
Dr. Jane Bicks