Separation Anxiety in Dogs

by Dr. Audrey Harvey, BVSc (Hons)

What is Separation Anxiety?

As the name suggests, separation anxiety in dogs is when they can't cope when they are left alone. They often destroy things, bark or whine constantly and may urinate or defecate indoors. Some dogs don't display such severe symptoms, but just pace the floor and pant excessively. They are still suffering from anxiety, and need treatment to ease their distress.

Research tells us that separation anxiety in dogs happens to one out of every six dogs to some degree. These dogs often also have noise phobias, and become stressed during thunderstorms or fireworks displays. It can affect dogs of any age or breed, however it needs to be differentiated from other behavioral issues, such as teething in puppies, or dementia in canine senior citizens. Pain can make a dog very clingy and bladder infections often cause abnormal urination.

Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Dogs

There are several behaviors that occur commonly in cases of separation anxiety. Vocalization, soiling the house, chewing things, destroying the home and even self mutilation can all be features of this condition.

These behaviors typically occur as soon as the owner leaves the house, but some dogs take up to 30 minutes before they start barking and chewing. Others become nervous as soon as they see any indication that their owner is going out, such as picking up keys or putting on a coat. Anxious barking in dogs tends to be high pitched yelps or yips, which is the sound a distressed young pup makes when it has moved too far away from its mom.

Destruction is often aimed at barriers, such as doors or gates, It's not uncommon for an owner to come home to find their dog has scratched all the paint off the inside of their front door.

Dogs with separation anxiety are usually extremely attached to their owner. They follow them around the house, and jump up for cuddles all the time. This is often very flattering to the owner, but they need to encourage the dog to be more independent.

Separation anxiety in dogs often makes its first appearance after a sudden change in living conditions. For example, the family may have moved house, or someone in the household has left. Interestingly, dogs owned by single people are more likely to suffer from separation anxiety. This may be because they become extremely attached to their one owner, and they may spend more time in an empty house than a dog with many family members coming and going.

Diagnosing Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Any dog that is exhibiting signs of anxiety should be examined by a veterinarian, to make sure there aren't other causes for their behavior. Depending on the findings, further tests such as blood tests or x rays may be necessary.

Your vet will often use a behavior questionnaire to work out exactly what your dog is doing and when. It's extremely helpful if a video can be made when the dog is alone, so the vet can actually see what is happening.

The main indicator of separation anxiety is that the behaviors occur when a dog is left alone. If he barks, chews or urinates when in the company of his family, there is some other reason for him behaving this way.

Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs

There are several aspects to treating separation anxiety in dogs, and it takes commitment and effort from his owner. It's important to point out that at no time should he be punished for his behavior. He isn't doing it deliberately, and punishment will only increase his anxiety and make the situation worse for both of you.

Many veterinarians prefer to refer dogs with separation anxiety to a behavior specialist. The general steps involved in treatment are as follows:

1. Reduce attachment. This isn't easy because we all want to show affection to our dogs. If your dog approaches you for a cuddle, don't do it. Instead, you must be the one to start games, and invite him over for a pat. When you come home from an outing, don't rush to him to greet him. Take your time, and act in a very matter-of-fact way.

If you share your home with other family members, ask them to help to care for your dog. They can feed him, groom him and take him for a walk, to encourage independence from you.

DAP for Separation Anxiety

2. Get your dog used to departures. Your dog is very clever, and he quickly learns that when you put on your shoes, pick up your purse or grab your keys, you are going out. Dogs with separation anxiety start to get restless and nervous as soon as you do this. To help your dog get used to it, you need to make these cues meaningless to your dog. Randomly, pick up your keys, grab your purse and then just put them down. At other times, put on your coat, walk around then take it off. When he is relaxed about this, you can then go out the door, lock it and immediately come back in. Repeat these cues over and over again, until your dog barely notices them.

3. Help your dog to relax when alone. When your dog is on his own, make it pleasant for him. Keep a special toy or treat just for these occasions. Take it away when you get home, so it remains “special”. You can purchase interactive treat dispensing toys that will keep him busy; alternatively stuff a Kong with treats, and he will spend a good few hours licking it clean.

It's a good idea to leave the television or the radio on when you are out. No, your dog won't think there is someone home, he is too smart for that. However, it will create a relaxing environment and may make him less anxious.

You may also want to try the dog appeasing pheromone (D.A.P.) plugin. It is plugged into a power point and releases pheromones that are like those produced by a mother dog feeding her pups. These pheromones will help your dog to calm down and relax. It is safe and effective, and definitely worth trying.

4. Medication. The only two drugs approved by the FDA for treating separation anxiety in dogs are Reconcile (fluoxetine) and Clomicalm (clomipramine). These drugs can take a few weeks to work, and on their own they don't alleviate your dog's symptoms. However, they make it easier for him to learn new behaviors so they are most useful when used with a retraining program.

Some human anti-anxiety drugs are effective in dogs, and can be used if your vet feels it is appropriate. These drugs are Enavil (amitryptiline) and Xanax (alprazolam).

If your dog really panics when you leave him, he may benefit from some sedatives in the early stages of his treatment. Valium is a good choice of drug for this purpose, and it works well.

Although these human drugs have been used effectively in dogs, please don't share your own medication with your canine family member. It's essential that anything you give your dog has been prescribed by your vet, so you know how much to give and what results to expect.

Separation anxiety in dogs is difficult to manage, and your dog may never fully get over his discomfort at being alone. However, treatment often results in a big improvement in his behavior when you leave him at home. Keep in mind that he may relapse in the future should there be significant changes in his environment, but you'll be able to quickly recognize the symptoms, and start managing it straight away.

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