Separation Anxiety in Dogs | Author: Dr. Cliff Redford, Veterinarian
Behavioural disorders are the #1 reason why pets are relinquished or abandoned. Pet owners should therefore ensure they identify and address such problems early on so that the human-animal bond remains strong and intact. Separation anxiety in dogs is one such problem. It gets triggered in some dogs when the people they are attached to go away and leave them alone. We don’t really know what causes it, nor can we predict which pets will experience clinical anxiety. However, this is an important and timely topic to discuss as we slowly emerge from the pandemic.
Pets have seen their owners at home all day, for several months now. And this routine will soon change for many as the pandemic lockdowns lift. People will return to work and/or school and dogs will once again, go back to being on their own at home. Is yours ready for this transition? Do not underestimate the impact of sudden changes to routines on your dog’s mental health. Even if you have not had to worry about it before, realize that your dog may suddenly have to cope with the perception of abandonment when you leave him/ her alone at home for long hours.
What Does Separation Anxiety Look Like in Dogs?
Separation anxiety in dogs can manifest itself in many ways. Some dogs will become agitated and anxious, while others will become downright depressed. One of the most common signs is extreme vocalization, howling or barking that will draw the ire of your stay-at-home neighbours. If you notice excessive salivation or panting when you are getting ready to leave, these may be the onset of their anxiety symptoms. Some dogs with anxiety will engage in obsessive and damaging self-grooming while you are away. They will lick, bite and rub themselves excessively to the point of bleeding.
Inappropriate urination and defecation patterns can also be a sign of separation anxiety, particularly if your dog does not do this in your presence. Pet owners should not interpret this as spiteful behaviour from their pet for being left alone. Animals do not feel human emotions like spite or anger, so do not punish them when they might already be having a hard enough time being alone.
The most distressing aspect of separation anxiety for pet owners is when they find their dog destroying household items, gnawing at windowsills and door frames, and chewing up items like shoes. As a last resort, pet owners will come in for a behavioural consultation to help make the dog stop his / her destructive ways. We will investigate these as possible signs of separation anxiety. However, sometimes, your dog may just be an “opportunistic adventurists”. Our labradoodle, Thalia is sometimes destructive just for entertainment. Given the chance when she is alone, she will break into our child-proof locked bedroom and select the same person’s underwear to chew up and toss around the house. This is hardly anxiety-triggered behaviour. It’s just fun for her, and only for her!
Which Dogs Experience Separation Anxiety?
Some dogs are more prone to suffer from separation anxiety compared to others. Your pet might have existing behavioural or mental health issues which increase the likelihood of anxieties. While dogs of any breed can succumb to it, several working type breeds such as Huskies and Spaniels show a genetic predisposition, as do Dalmations and Greyhounds.
As pets age, their ability to handle drastic changes decreases. Add to that a decline in senses and even decreased cognitive function, and you have a recipe for separation anxiety and other mental health problems. However, sometimes, age-related health conditions, including pain, can manifest themselves just like separation anxiety. An older pet’s health can change rapidly over 4 – 5 months. Consider bringing him/ her in for diagnostic bloodwork and an examination so we can properly assess their pain levels and rule out separation anxiety.
Newly adopted pets have an increased diagnosis rate of separation anxiety and it can be caused by a variety of factors. Your rescue dog might have not seen stability and experienced lots of changes in a short time. Alternatively, they might have been given up for adoption because of their separation anxiety. And in some cases, it might be a combination of both.
Preventing Separation Anxiety
To ensure you don’t shock your dog suddenly into being at home alone, pet owners can start desensitizing their dogs for the upcoming day in advance.
First, start by leaving your pet alone for increasing lengths of time each day. Schedule your departure for a time that is similar to when you will leave for work or school. In addition, change your dog’s activities to match what will occur when your new routine begins. For example, stop taking your dog on walks three times per day if you will not be able to continue it when you go back to the office. You may want to get your pet used to a short walk in the morning and a longer one in the evening
Many pet owners opt for the services of a dog walker around the middle of the day to break up long hours of alone time. Getting a good run in the dog park with their buddies will likely leave your dog ready for a snack and long nap in the afternoon. You will find them fresh and happy when you return from work.
Also, consider purchasing toys that have a puzzle component to them that your dog can explore and play with. Some serve up the occasional treats that will delight them and keep their spirits up.
If you already know that your dog suffers from separation anxiety or other mental health disorders, consider including all-natural, over-the-counter calming supplements in their diet. Research indicates that Tryptophan or Valerian root supplements safely reduce stress in dogs. You can gain the same benefits from synthetic pheromone diffusers such as DAP which are readily available at your local pet store as plug-ins or collar attachments.
Clinical Separation Anxiety in Dogs
If your dog exhibits moderate or severe signs of separation anxiety, then you should make an appointment with us. We will discuss behaviour modification training. While this sounds intense, it really isn’t. You just have to desensitize your dog so they can get comfortable being alone. Here, you must pay attention to three points.
- Do not punish. If they’ve damaged something or urinated on the carpet, do your best to tidy up.
- Teach your dog to become bored with you leaving the house. For this, get up as often as you can, multiple times in a day. Put on your shoes and coat, grab your keys, head to the front door, and then just don’t leave. Simply reverse those actions and return to whatever you were doing before. This will help your dog not freak out when you actually leave.
- This is the hardest part of the program. You must ignore your dog for five minutes before you leave and after you return. During that time, you should also avoid hugs and not spoil them out of guilt for leaving them alone. Do not use a high-pitched baby voice during that time, either. All of this is designed to keep your dog from getting amped up before you leave. And it will also keep him/ her from getting super excited about your coming back, thus reducing the levels of stress during these important transition moments in your routine.
Most dogs will start exhibiting improvements after a few weeks of de-sensitization training. The most severe cases might require further help from prescription medication to help reduce their anxiety.
ABOUT DR. CLIFF
Dr. Cliff Redford, DVM, is an experienced veterinarian and owner/operator of the Wellington Veterinary Hospital in Markham Ontario. Fondly known as Dr. Cliff to his clients, he has tended to the wellness of pets and animals for over two decades. Hands-on experience in his clinic, combined with animal advocacy and rescue missions locally and across the globe, has allowed him to curate a vast body of knowledge on animal health and welfare, including preventative counselling, soft tissue surgery, advanced dental procedures, internal medicine and emergency care.