Separation anxiety is a psychological condition in which pets, usually dogs, become excessively stressed when their owners leave them alone. Affected dogs can display adverse behaviors, such as incessant barking, inappropriate elimination, and destructive activities, that can lead to neighbor complaints, animal control official visits, and significant property damage. Separation anxiety can be so severe that owners will consider rehoming their pet. The good news is that once diagnosed, separation anxiety can be treated. Our University Veterinary Hospital team wants to help you and your pet with information on recognizing separation anxiety in pets, plus strategies to overcome this serious behavior problem.
What causes separation anxiety in dogs?
Separation anxiety reflects an intense attachment to an owner, as well as an abrupt change in the pet’s life. Examples include:
- A move to a new home or environment
- A change in family structure, such as a new baby, pet, or partner, or a family member’s absence from the household due to death or divorce
- Alterations to daily routine, or no routine
- Increased time alone for a pet accustomed to being around people
How can I recognize separation anxiety?
Dogs with separation anxiety repeatedly display specific, inappropriate behaviors, but only when you or other family members are absent. These include:
- Excessive barking, whining, and howling
- Urinating and defecating indoors, despite being fully house trained
- Chewing furniture, books, or clothing
- Gnawing wooden doors and moldings, scratching floors and walls, and tearing up carpet
- Incessant pacing
- Drooling and shaking for hours
- Attempting repeatedly to escape
How is separation anxiety diagnosed?
The first step is a visit to your veterinarian, who will rule out medical causes, such as infections, endocrine conditions, and brain disease. If they cannot identify a physical explanation, they may question the owner to distinguish separation anxiety from other psychological problems that cause pet destructive behaviors, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias, and aggression. Once separation anxiety is confirmed, the condition is further defined according to severity.
How can I treat my dog with mild separation anxiety?
Try giving your dog a special treat before you leave that you remove when you return. The treat should be something, such as a puzzle toy, that occupies your dog while you depart. Keep departures and homecomings calm and low-key—many veterinary behaviorists recommend ignoring your pet for five to 10 minutes when you return home. You can also try giving your pet some old clothing before you leave for them to sniff and cuddle, akin to a child’s security blanket.
How do I treat a dog with severe separation anxiety?
Treats and old clothing will not distract more seriously affected dogs. These dogs associate specific owner behaviors with being left alone, so desensitizing them to those actions can greatly reduce their anticipatory stress.
- Desensitize — Put on your shoes, and then sit on the sofa rather than leave the house. Pick up your keys, and hold them while you read a magazine in the same room as your pet. Put on your coat, and walk around the living room. These exercises, repeated multiple times each day, may desensitize your dog to the triggers they associate with your leaving, and may lower your pet’s stress response over time.
- Time alone — When your pet can stay relaxed during these sessions, the next step is to leave them alone briefly. Tell your pet to stay, and then stand outside a nearby door. Initially, keep your disappearance to less than a minute before reuniting with your pet. Repeat this several times each day, always maintaining a tranquil demeanor when reuniting with your pet, and rewarding them for remaining calm. Gradually increase your separation time, and then increase the distance between you and your pet. Don’t rush, and be patient, because the process takes time. When your pet can stay calm without being able to see you indoors, try leaving the house for short periods, gradually increasing the time away if your pet stays calm.
- Pet-sitter — While your dog learns new coping mechanisms, they may benefit from having a pet sitter in the home when you really have to leave.
- Exercise — Regular exercise can help pets with separation anxiety. Ensure they get regular daily exercise, including walks, runs, and retrieving games, several times per day to tire them out. Challenge their brains with training sessions, puzzle toys, and problem-solving games.
- Reward and praise — Reward every calm and patient behavior. Ask your pet to sit quietly before feeding them. Praise them for relaxing quietly while you work at home or watch television. Remember that you, too, should behave calmly around your dog.
- Medication — Medications used to treat pets with separation anxiety include antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and sedatives. These medications can lower the dog’s panic level, and are adjuncts to behavior modification techniques, not cures.
At University Veterinary Hospital, we can advise you about difficult pet behavior problems such as separation anxiety. If you are at your wit’s end, or need advice on next steps, contact us.