Separation anxiety in dogs

Photo courtesy of Dr. Jonckheer-Sheehy

Photo courtesy of Dr. Jonckheer-Sheehy

Authors:

Kelly Ballantyne, DVM 
Behavior Resident in Private Practice, American College of Veterinary Behaviorists 
Chicagoland Veterinary Behavior Consultants, Chicago, USA  

Valerie Jonckheer-Sheehy, MVB MRCVS MSc LAS 
Behaviour veterinarian
Veterinary Referral Centre de Wagenrenk, Wageningen, The Netherlands


Introduction

Separation anxiety is a prevalent problem, affecting 14-29% of all dogs.  Dogs with separation anxiety exhibit signs of anxiety, fear, or panic, including excessive vocalization, destruction, and house soiling, when they don’t have access to their family members.  This usually occurs when the pet owners are out of the house, but it can also occur when the owners are home but the dog cannot reach them.  Separation anxiety is a serious behavioral issue, affecting the quality of life of the dog and his or her owners.

Signs of a problem

Dogs with separation anxiety can display a variety of behaviors both when the owner prepares to leave the house and when home alone.  If you see any of these signs in your dog, contact your veterinarian for help immediately.

Pre-departure signs:

Dogs with separation anxiety can learn to associate many of his or her owner’s pre-departure activities with their impending absence.  Often, affected dogs will show signs of anxiety as their owner prepares to leave.  These may include:

  • following or shadowing behaviors
  • nose licking
  • yawning
  • pacing
  • panting
  • whining or barking

*Some dogs may even attempt to block their owner’s exit from the house or react aggressively (bark, growl, snap, or bite) as their owner leaves.

Destructive behavior, such as this intense chewing around the doorway, is a sign of separation anxiety and can result in self-injury.  Photo courtesy of Dr. Jonckheer-Sheehy 

Destructive behavior, such as this intense chewing around the doorway, is a sign of separation anxiety and can result in self-injury.  Photo courtesy of Dr. Jonckheer-Sheehy 

Owner absent signs:

  • excessive vocalization (whining, barking, or howling)
  • house soiling
  • destructive behavior 
    • targeted items are often those that are handled regularly by the owner and may include clothing, shoes, blankets or bedding, and remote controls
    • destructive behavior may also be targeted at doorways or windows (as the dog tries to escape and find his or her owner)
  • self-injury
    • most injuries involve the nose, teeth, gums, and paws which are injured during escape attempts
  • excessive salivation (pools of liquid on the floor)
  • decreased appetite and thirst

 

If you are not sure if your dog has separation anxiety, the best thing you can do is to bring your dog to your veterinarian. Your vet may request you to capture a video of your dog while he or she is home alone. 

Which dogs does this condition affect?

Separation anxiety affects dogs of all breeds, sexes, and ages.  It appears more commonly in dogs adopted from shelters.  It’s unclear whether this is because dogs are commonly relinquished to shelters because of their separation anxiety or whether being relinquished predisposes dogs to separation anxiety. 

What causes it?

Most puppies show some degree of distress when first learning to be home alone.  However, in most cases these behaviors improve quickly and resolve within 1-2 weeks.  If the behaviors don’t improve or worsen within that time, you should seek help from your veterinarian immediately. In other cases, separation anxiety can develop when there is a sudden change in routine or environment.  This most commonly occurs in dogs that are generally anxious.  Possible triggers include an extended period of constant contact with the owners followed by a sudden separation, a move to a new home, and family members leaving or joining the household. Separation anxiety often occurs with other anxiety disorders. In one study, dogs with noise phobias had a high probability (88%) of also having separation anxiety.  Separation anxiety can also develop in senior dogs because of medical illnesses, cognitive dysfunction, or due to a decreased ability to cope with changes and stress.

Management

Photo courtesy of Dr. Jonckheer-Sheehy

Photo courtesy of Dr. Jonckheer-Sheehy

  • Avoid triggers:  Each experience of panic when left home alone will only worsen the dog’s separation anxiety.  You should avoid leaving your dog home alone until appropriate treatment has been implemented.  If this is not possible, alternatives may include dog daycares, pet sitters, or bringing your dog to work if allowed by your employer.
  • Don’t use punishment:  Don’t punish your dog physically or verbally for his or her separation anxiety signs, including house soiling, destructive behavior, barking or howling.  House soiling and destructive behaviors likely occurred hours before you return home, so your dog won’t be able to associate these behaviors with the punishment.  Devices that implement punishment immediately, such as bark collars or ultrasonic devices must not be used. They don’t address the underlying cause of the barking and will make your dog more anxious.  
  • Reinforce independence by giving your dog a long lasting treat while he or she rests on a bed or mat at a distance from you.  Start with a distance where your dog can remain comfortable and engaged with his or her chew toy and gradually increase the distance over several days to weeks.
  • Distractions:  Give long lasting treats several minutes prior to your departures.  Options include Kong® toys filled with favorite treats or other interactive style toys.
  • Departures and arrivals:  Sometimes people are advised to ignore their dog when they arrive or leave the house. This is bad advice and will make an already anxious dog more anxious and his or her life even less predictable.  When you come or leave your home its ok to greet your dog in a calm manner but keep it low key and don’t make a big fuss over him or her. Feeding and walks should take place at least 15-30 minutes before you intend to leave the house. 

Treatment

In many cases, separation anxiety requires a combination of medical therapy with anti-anxiety medications, environmental management and behavior modification to control the affected dog’s anxiety or panic.  If your pet is causing significant damage to your home, injuring itself, barking, howling, or whining, or salivating persistently in your absence, seek help immediately from a behavior veterinarian.  Dogs with separation anxiety experience significant emotional distress which compromises their welfare.   There are effective treatments available to help your dog, but the prognosis for improvement decreases the longer he or she experiences separation anxiety without appropriate treatment.


© Kelly Ballantyne and Valerie Jonckheer-Sheehy 2014

This article may be reproduced with written permission from the authors.