Separation Anxiety in Dogs

[Return to Veterinary Behavior at Illinois]

chihuahuaThey’re not being “spiteful.”

Separation anxiety is a common behavior disorder affecting dogs worldwide. Twenty to 40 percent of dogs presented to veterinary behavioral specialists suffer from this disorder. Dogs with separation anxiety often express their emotional distress in destructive, loud, and inconvenient ways. Thus, dogs with this disorder are often accused of being “spiteful” and it is assumed the dog was “getting back” at their owner for leaving them.

However, that is an unfortunate misunderstanding of their cry for help. Dogs who suffer from separation anxiety are emotionally distressed and anxious when their person leaves, even if just for a short time. This emotional distress can be taxing on the animal’s wellbeing, which is why it is important to consult your veterinarian on ways to alleviate their anxiety.

What causes the behavior?

Emotional distress is the primary cause of the behaviors seen with separation anxiety. The distress stems from the absence of the animal’s person (or persons) to whom they are most attached.

What should I look for?

It is important to understand signs of fear and discomfort in cases of separation anxiety. Common fearful and anxious behaviors include excessive barking and drooling, restless behavior, pacing, panting, destructive behavior to their environment and to themselves and reluctance to eat and drink. If you are concerned your dog might be experiencing separation anxiety, it is extremely helpful to video the dog while you are away. The video allows you and your veterinarian to gain insight into the exact behavior of your dog.

  • Destructive behavior
  • Excessive drooling
  • Excessive barking or whining
  • Self-harm
  • Inappropriate elimination
  • Restlessness when owner departs
  • Panting, pacing, licking their lips, cowering
  • Reluctance to eat

How can I help?

Separation anxiety can place a lot of strain on the human-animal bond. Taking steps to alleviate their distress can in turn alleviate your frustration. Here are some steps you can take.

  • Talk to your veterinarian. Unfortunately, the signs of separation anxiety can also be signs of medical disease. Visit your trusted veterinarian for a wellness exam and basic blood work.
  • Ask about anti-anxiety medication. We cannot always be home with our pets, and so it is important to set them up for success when we are away. Anti-anxiety medication is not aimed to sedate your animal, or alter their personality. The true aim is to decrease anxiety so that they relax while you are away.
  • Alter your departures and arrivals. Departures can become stressful with your dog anticipating you leaving. A few ways to decrease their stress could be packing your things the night before, or limiting your interaction with you pet before you leave. Similarly, delay greeting your pet until they are calm and relaxed. These changes make departures and arrivals as uneventful as possible, and can ease the transition.
  • Provide interactive toys and give valuable treats when you leave.
  • Be careful with crating. Some dogs suffering from separation anxiety can find the confinement more stressful and will try to break out. Baby-gating them into a safe room with all of their necessary supplies can be a good option.
  • DO NOT PUNISH YOUR DOG. This may be the most important part of helping to reduce your pet’s anxiety. Remember, they are not destroying your things out of spite, but out of fear. Punishment adds to the stress level and further imbalances of your relationship.
  • Be patient. Due to the high emotional response, it may take time to alleviate your pet’s stress. Your veterinarian is there to help you along the way.

What are some useful tools?

  • Interactive toys
  • Gates to confine animals to only certain areas
  • Distractions such as music and white noise
  • Create a safe place
  • Make departures and arrivals uneventful
  • Appropriate medications

References

  • Canine Anxieties and Phobias: An update on Separation Anxiety and Noise Aversions. Sherman, Barbara L et. al. Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice, Volume 38, Issue 5, 1081-1106.
  • Dr. Kelly Ballantyne’s “Anxiety Disorders” lecture
  • Drsophiayin.com
  • www.kongcompany.com

—Compiled by Rory Arrigo for Dr. Kelly Ballantyne’s VM 620 class