Home Alone: Ways to keep your pet calm while you’re away

Kia ora, pet lovers. We all know the saying, "it's a dog's life", but what about those moments when we're not at home with our beloved pets? Even with the whole couch to themselves, both cats and dogs can be left feeling confused, lonely, and even stressed when you aren't around.

That's why we've called in the expert, our very own Dr Rosalind Holland (BVSc, MVM, MANZCVS). With her years of experience and passion for pets, Dr Holland will guide us through the telltale signs of loneliness in your pet. We will also share some top tips on how to best support your pets when you can't always be there – whether you're at work or on holiday.

Why pets experience loneliness

Some pets are social creatures, and just like us, they thrive on companionship – something that your pet (understandably) might be longing for when you're away.

When left alone for extended periods, loneliness and boredom can manifest in your pet in a variety of ways. From anxiety-related behaviours (such as excessive barking, digging, or licking) to physical symptoms like lethargy and loss of appetite – these are some of the changes in your pet's behaviour that might mean they are anxious or lonely.

Recognising signs in dogs

Spotting signs of loneliness, boredom or frustration in your dog may be difficult on the surface. After all, when you arrive home, you'll often see a happy, bounding pooch coming your way. It's important to look at the more subtle signs of stress. Dr Holland indicates that the most obvious sign of stress is a change in behaviour, looking for things such as:

  • Changes in energy levels
  • Changes in appetite
  • Whining or unsettled behaviour when you are getting ready to leave
  • Toileting accidents in an otherwise house-trained dog
  • Evidence of excessive drooling (wet hair around chest and mouth or puddles of saliva)

Other more obvious signs may include destructive behaviour, such as chewing, or excessive barking when you're away. This may be your pet attempting to provide themselves with stimulation that is lacking or attempting to escape.

Recognising signs in cats

It's a common misconception that cats are independent and don't need companionship – but this simply isn't true. Cats feel loneliness too, although it can sometimes be more difficult to spot due to their sometimes seemingly distant behaviour.

Dr Holland shares the common signs of stress in cats:

  • Inappropriate toileting around the home (including urine marking)
  • Aggression
  • Hiding
  • Overgrooming – you may not witness this behaviour but signs include broken hairs and hair loss (often on the belly) 
  • Increased resting (feigned sleep)

Techniques for calming your pet

Follow a routine

It's important to try and stick to a regular daily routine as much as possible, “New people and changes to routine are both inherently stressful events for cats and dogs” Dr Holland explains. Familiarity is key for pets who are feeling anxious or lonely, so having the comfort of structure can be beneficial. Try to feed your pet at the same time each day and set aside time for play and exercise. Doing this will provide them with consistency and security, setting them up for a happy and healthy life.

Introduce new activities

Introducing new activities can be fun, stimulating, and provide mental enrichment to your pet's day. Catering to your pet's behavioural needs will help them cope in times of stress, explains Dr Holland, “Make sure dogs are well socialised, get appropriate amounts of exercise, and have regular opportunities to participate in satisfying activities such as puzzle solving toys or training.” When it comes to cats, the SPCA recommends using puzzle feeders as an easy solution to make your cat’s meals more interesting. Even better if you can create your own puzzle feeders, but we recommend starting with an easy one first!

Spend quality time together

The most important way to help your pet feel less lonely is to spend quality time together. This could include cuddles, playtime and even some training. Bonding activities such as brushing or simply sitting with your pet can help them feel secure and part of the family.

When you are home, giving your pets adequate attention whether it be through play, cuddling, or simply being near them helps to meet their social needs.

Create a secure environment

Creating a secure environment is essential for your pet's well-being. For some dogs, crate training can be extremely beneficial by acting as a comforting space.

For cats, their sense of security often comes from high places. Vertical spaces allow cats to observe their surroundings from a safe distance, which can significantly reduce stress and anxiety. This can be as simple as a cat tree or even shelves specifically for your feline friend to lounge on.

All pets should feel secure in their home, so ensure all individuals are provided for especially in a multi-pet household. Providing enough food, litter boxes, and other resources reduces stress caused by competition.

Pheromone support

Pheromones are secreted by animals to communicate with each other and provide comfort. Dr Holland promotes the use of pheromone diffusers in the home to help reduce stress and encourage feelings of calmness. They are available for dogs and cats in both sprays and plug-ins and are very safe for all animals.

When you can't be home

If you can’t be home as much as you would like, consider engaging in extra social support for your pet. This could be in the form of a trusted dog walker, or even having another member of the family take care of them while you’re away. Dr Holland recommends looking at in-home care such as a pet sitter rather than a kennel or cattery for those pets prone to stress.

Seeking veterinary support

Dr Holland stresses the fact that many signs of stress can also be signs of illness. If behaviour changes suddenly, is significant, or is ongoing then it’s best to get veterinary support to rule out an underlying medical cause. Especially when it comes to cats, Dr Holland suggests “Cats in particular are very good at hiding signs of illness so if there are any marked changes in behaviour it is usually best to err on the side of caution and have them checked by a vet.”

A vet can also provide additional tips and advice on how best to support your pet.

Help them feel loved

No matter the cause, many pets are prone to feeling lonely from time to time; by acknowledging the signs and providing extra support, you can help your pet feel secure and loved. For extra support, consider investing in SPCA Pet Insurance to give you added peace of mind for your furry friend in the event they become unexpectedly sick or accidentally injured.