Canine Separation Anxiety: Home Alone! An Anxious and Fearful Time for Some Dogs

What is Canine Separation Anxiety?

Have you ever come home to find your dog has redecorated your house, chewed on the windowsill, or urinated/defecated on the floor? Or perhaps your neighbor runs out to greet you and tells you your dog has been barking incessantly ever since you left. If so, your dog could have separation anxiety, a distressful behavioral condition that occurs when a dog is left alone or separated from a significant person or persons. Other signs of separation anxiety include hypersalivation, restlessness, panting, pacing, or trembling/shaking.1

What causes canine separation anxiety? 2

Specific causes of canine separation anxiety for each patient may be different, and sometimes difficult to determine. Some possible causes include:

  • Rehoming (dogs adopted from a shelter or rescue) may predispose to separation anxiety
  • Inadequate socialization of puppies with other people or dogs
  • Dogs with hyper-attachment syndrome – follow their owner everywhere, seek constant attention/contact with their owner
  • A sudden change in the household, such as moving or an owner who has stayed at home for some time then starts a job that takes them out of the house
  • Loss of a canine companion
  • Being trapped alone during a traumatic event, such as an earthquake, hurricane, etc.

How can I tell if my dog has separation anxiety?

First talk with your veterinarian, who will be able to determine if your dog’s behaviors are an indication of separation anxiety or other medical conditions that can have similar signs, such as bladder infections, diabetes mellitus, or canine cognitive dysfunction.

Since these behaviors occur when you are away from home, setting up a video camera allows you and your veterinarian to see what is really going on. You can observe all the different behaviors, see when these occur, and how long these last, all of which can help with the diagnosis. For instance, if you dog is resting quietly at home until the construction work on the home next door begins, then perhaps your dog has noise aversion [www.noiseaversionquiz.com] rather than separation anxiety.

Why does my dog have separation anxiety?

Why a specific dog has separation anxiety may be hard to determine. However, what we do know is your dog is not acting out of spite, trying to punish you, or behaving this way because she is bored. Your dog’s behaviors are because being left alone is causing her to be anxious, fearful, and distressed. Therefore, it is important to realize your dog’s level of fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS) and never punish your dog for having separation anxiety. If you do so, you will only make matters worse.

My dog was diagnosed with separation anxiety; now what?

Your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist will set up a treatment plan for your dog, which will likely include a combination of behavior modification and medications. Some simple things you can do at home include:

  • Identify the triggers that cause your dog to start getting excited before you leave, such as jingling of keys or packing your briefcase or backpack. Try putting your keys in your coat pocket or pack your briefcase or backpack the evening before.
  • Before you leave, you can use a “distraction “technique. If your dog is comfortable in a crate (voluntarily goes there to sleep and eats and receives treats in the crate), give your dog a food puzzle or a frozen Kong filled with peanut butter or baby food while they are in the crate. Then while they are being “distracted,” quietly leave. When they finish their treat, they may handle your absence calmly.
  • When you return home, likely your dog will be overly happy to see you. Resist the temptation to give him a vigorous pat until he settles down. Calmly take off your coat and read your mail until he settles down, then calmly greet him. When you greet him, do not be over enthusiastic. You want to keep him from having big excursions of emotions from highs to lows.
  • Management options include taking your dog to doggie daycare or day boarding at a kennel until the behavior modification and medications begin to work. Taking your dog to reward-based training classes, agility training, or other types of activities can build your dog’s confidence, which may help reduce his separation anxiety.

What else should I know about separation anxiety?

We know you love your pet and that for the most part she is perfectly behaved except when you leave her at home. We also know that separation anxiety is not just stressful to your dog but is also stressful to you. You may be worried about your dog’s wellbeing or perhaps you are losing patience always having to come home and clean up the mess. If your dog is destructive, perhaps the bills for home repair are adding up.

Whatever the reason, we know that separation anxiety can have a negative impact on your bond with your dog. Therefore, it is important to discuss your dog’s signs of separation anxiety with your veterinarian so that treatment can be initiated early to relieve her suffering and improve the quality of life for both you and your dog.

Although your dog may need to be treated for separation anxiety for the rest of her life, at least you know you are providing her the best care and relieving her suffering from separation anxiety.

References

  1. Sherman BL, Mills DS. Canine anxieties and phobias: An update on separation anxiety and noise aversion. Vet Clin Small Anim. 2008; 38:1081-1106.
  2. Overall KL. (2013) Abnormal canine behaviors and behavioral pathologies not primarily involving pathological aggression. Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats. (238-251). St Louis, MO: Elsevier.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

This article is brought to you in collaboration with our friends at Zoetis Petcare. SIL-00434