Canine Separation Anxiety

Primarily a problem afflicting dogs*, separation anxiety is a condition which is characterized by a dog's intolerance to being left alone. This can occur when the dog is actually left alone (as when owners are away from home) or when the dog perceives it is alone (for example, when the owner is in the shower). The resulting panic attack displays itself in the form of a) destructive behavior (particularly directed towards exit points from the home), b) excessive salivation (drooling), c) elimination of stool and/or urine when left alone, d) excessive vocalization (howling) when alone, or e) intolerance to being away from owners when they are at home. This is displayed by "shadowing" of the preferred owner and not wishing to be left outside alone for very long.

Treatment of Separation Anxiety involves modification of the dog's behavior and environmental changes which both function to decrease the dog's dependence on the owner(s). Some techniques include:

  • Decreasing excitement directed toward the dog at departure and arrival. This is meant to prevent the dog from getting overly excited when the owners leave or arrive and thereby reduce the negative effect of the departure on the dog. Ignore the dog for 30 minutes at these times.
  • Immediately before departure give the dog a toy which it only has available to him at this time. The toy should be interesting enough to capture the dog's attention and decrease his focus on the departure. A good choice is a Kong Toy (a rubber, hollowed out chew toy) stuffed with something like peanut butter or Cheez Wiz.
  • Graduated Departure Exercises. This entails first teaching and rewarding the dog for a relaxed sit-stay near the area where you leave the house from. Then you gradually increase the distance from the dog, while rewarding him for maintaining a calm, relaxed posture. You increase the distance until you reach the door then open the door increasing amounts. At this point you briefly (a few seconds) leave the house and return (again rewarding appropriate behavior). gradually increase the time you are gone up to about 30 minutes. At this point you should be able to accomplish much longer departures since the anxiety usually manifests itself in the first 30 minutes of departure.
  • Unique Odor During SHORT Departures. ONLY during short departures you should utilize some type of unique spray which imparts an odor the dog will associate with short departures. In a sense you are telling the dog when he smells this odor, "I will only be gone a few minutes". You must never do this during normal (extended) departures or the association to the dog will now be invalid and unreliable.
  • Attention Seeking Responses. Dogs develop an array of behaviors meant to attain attention from their owners. In dogs with Separation Anxiety, they use these techniques to solidify the strong attachment they have developed towards their owner. When the owner consistently responds to these demands they are reinforcing the dog's reliance on them thus making departure more of a significant, traumatic event. Your goal is to not respond to these demands. When the dog approaches for unsolicited attention you need to ignore and walk away from him. When he is relaxed and non-attentive you can initiate the contact and use a treat reward to reinforce the desired behavior. Be forewarned. Your dog will accelerate this attention seeking behavior at first because it has ALWAYS worked in the past. Don't worry. Within a few days he will get the message of what the new rules are and will quickly learn what behaviors are required to receive a reward.
  • Frequently medication is needed to "buy time" to allow the steps outlined above to work. Your veterinarian can discuss these with you if he/she is well versed in behavior medicine.

The overall consensus is that Separation Anxiety does occur in cats, though not as frequently. The primary sign in cats with Separation Anxiety is the tendency to eliminate on the bed of the primary attachment person in the household and it occurs when the cat is alone, or perceives to be alone.