Separation anxiety is a fairly common physical and/or behavioral distress response displayed by some domestic dogs when they are left alone or otherwise separated from their owners. Specifically, it involves panic and agitation that leads to destructive and otherwise inappropriate behaviors. Separation anxiety can be very disturbing and frustrating to owners; it can be serious enough to cause them to surrender their dogs to animal shelters or elsewhere. This is a recognized medical syndrome in companion dogs and can be a veterinary medical emergency.
Causes of Separation Anxiety
Most behavioral abnormalities in companion dogs are caused by some sort of chemical and/or environmental imbalance. The exact cause of separation anxiety is unknown. However, dogs of all ages, genders and breeds have been diagnosed with this disorder, and it is possible that affected dogs have a genetic susceptibility to anxiety disorders, as some people do. Animals that have suffered from abuse, neglect or other traumatic events seem more likely to develop separation anxiety, although that is not true in all cases. We do know that the trigger of the actual symptoms of this condition is separation of the affected dog from its owner or special person. While some people speculate that dogs with separation anxiety are either poorly trained, spoiled or suffering from being an "only child," there is no verifiable evidence that any of these conditions cause clinical separation anxiety as it is defined medically.
Prevention of Separation Anxiety
All companion animals should be maintained in the most positive, stress-free environment possible, with a high quality diet, regular exercise and loving companionship. When a person is considering acquiring a puppy, and when people are evaluating dogs as potential participants in a breeding program, the medical and behavioral traits of the animals and their close family members should be taken into consideration.
Reports suggest that up to 30% of companion dogs experience some degree of separation anxiety during their lives. This is an important condition in our companion animals, and it should not be dismissed as simply a result of inadequate training or socialization.
The primary complaint by owners of dogs with separation anxiety is that their pet engages in extremely destructive behaviors, vocalizes and soils in the house when the owner is absent. Regardless of the specific expression of the disorder in any given case, separation anxiety usually is extremely frustrating and difficult for dog owners to live with. It also takes a huge toll on the affected animal, both mentally and physically.
Symptoms of Canine Separation Anxiety
Owners of dogs with separation anxiety report a range of abnormal behaviors engaged in by their pets when they are not present. The length of the owner's absence seems to be irrelevant to the severity of the dog's reaction to that separation. Dogs suffering from separation anxiety may display some or all of the following symptoms or behaviors:
Chewing and destruction of household objects, such as furniture, carpet, shoes, walls and the like. Window sills, doors and personal possessions of the owner are frequent targets.
Inappropriate vocalization (barking, howling, whining)
Inappropriate elimination, which may involve urination and/or defecation in the house or in other inappropriate areas
Bouts of diarrhea that are not readily explainable
Attempts to escape from their environment (house, crate, yard, kennel, car, etc.), which frequently cause self-trauma
Attempts to prevent their owner from leaving the house
Excessive excitement and prolonged greeting activities when their owner returns home, regardless of how long she has been gone
Lack of appetite (anorexia; inappetance)
Drooling (excessive salivation)
Shivering, shaking, twitching
Licking to the point of self-injury
Scratching to the point of self-injury
Chewing to the point of self-injury
Torn or broken nails
Elevated heart rate (tachycardia)
Respiratory distress (tachypnia; rapid shallow breathing; difficulty breathing)
Many of the symptoms or behaviors can be caused by conditions other than separation anxiety. However, once underlying medical diseases are ruled out, separation anxiety moves up on the list of possible causes.
Dogs At Increased Risk
Separation anxiety usually becomes evident around the time of sexual and social maturity, which in dogs is between 12 and 36 months of age, depending on the breed. Dogs that have been neglected or abused, either physically or emotionally, are at an increased risk of developing this disorder. Dogs that have had a particularly traumatic experience while their "person" was away, such as a fire, a burglary, fireworks, sirens, thunderstorms, lightening storms, a dog fight or other unusually stressful events, are more prone to develop a sudden onset of separation anxiety as well. Other suggested at-risk dogs include those that have spent a significant amount of time in animal shelters or boarding facilities; those that have been moved from home to home and from owner to owner multiple times; and those that spend prolonged periods of time confined in isolation from contact with humans or other animals. Elderly dogs also seem to be overrepresented.
Separation anxiety can be difficult to diagnose, depending on how it presents in a given animal. Dogs with wounds from constant licking, chewing or scratching will go through different diagnostic procedures than those with inappropriate elimination, lack of appetite or excessive vocalization. Owners should be patient when working with their veterinarians and with other canine behavioral professionals, because while diagnosis can take some time, separation anxiety can be quite manageable and even treatable in the long run.
How Separation Anxiety is Diagnosed
Separation anxiety in dogs is diagnosed largely through a process of elimination. The attending veterinarian will take a thorough history of the dog's behavior from its owner, followed by a complete physical examination. The detailed history is one of the most important parts of the diagnostic process for this disorder. Another cornerstone of diagnosing separation anxiety – and perhaps the most powerful diagnostic tool - is the use of videocameras. Videotaping the dog during its owner's absence can show exactly what the dog is doing while its owner is gone, and also can identify any outside influences that may be provoking the dog's behavior.
Many veterinarians will recommend taking a blood sample (for a complete blood count, a serum biochemistry profile and possibly a thyroid panel) and a urine sample (for a urinalysis). These tests can be useful to assess the dog's overall health and possibly to help identify other causes of the animal's symptoms. The results of these procedures in dogs with separation anxiety are typically within normal limits. This means that the results of blood and urine tests cannot diagnose separation anxiety, but they can help rule out other conditions that may be causing the dog's symptoms.
Depending on the particular behaviors and/or physical abnormalities displayed by the dog, other diagnostic tests might include: skin scrapings or biopsies (if dermatologic disorders are suspected); radiographs (x-rays); and fecal evaluation or other tests of the digestive system (if gastrointestinal or parasitic conditions are suspected). If the dog is showing neurologic signs (tremors, shaking, pacing, circling, etc.), the veterinarian may recommend a full neurologic work up, possibly including sampling and assessment of cerebrospinal fluid and/or advanced imaging using computed tomography (CT scan) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
The diagnostic process for dogs with behavioral disorders is difficult at best, especially when the abnormal behaviors are accompanied by physical signs such as wounds, hair loss or other lesions. However, with patience and persistence, the process is almost always worthwhile.
Separation anxiety is something that dogs experience when they become excessively distressed by being apart from the person to whom they are the most attached. It can lead to a number of problems, including inappropriate elimination, vocalization and episodes of highly destructive behavior, among many others. There are various ways to address separation anxiety that are both medical and non-medical in nature. The overall treatment goal is to change the dog's behavior so that it no longer becomes distraught when separated from its owner, but instead remains safe, calm and content.
The hallmark of treating canine separation anxiety is behavior modification. There are an almost infinite number of ways to modify a given behavior in a given dog, depending upon what that behavior is, the skill of the veterinarian, trainer or behavior therapist, the surrounding physical environment, the temperamental makeup of the dog and the commitment, diligence and persistence of the owner.
In acute or dramatic cases, separation anxiety is considered a medical emergency. Dogs should not be left alone during these episodes. If necessary, medical management in times of crisis may require pet walkers or sitters, doggy day care, boarding at a veterinary hospital or other facility, taking the dog to work, or any other safe and creative way that helps to alleviate the dog's distress and reduce the chances of self-trauma. Owners should work with their veterinarian (and with other animal behavior professionals whom their veterinarian might recommend) to work out the details of a long-term behavior modification regimen that is tailored to their dog. Generally, the process involves desensitizing the dog to the owner's departure and return, and teaching the owner not to intentionally or inadvertently reinforce the dog's panic-related behaviors.
Non-medical techniques for managing separation anxiety can include things as simple as increasing the amount of regular daily exercise and play time that the dog gets. Working owners can enlist the help of friends or professional dog-sitters who can spend time with their dog and provide necessary distractions when the owner is not home. This can help the dog lose its focus on destructive behaviors and gradually become desensitized to its owner's absence. A dog with separation anxiety should be helped to relax in a variety of different settings, both with and without its owner. The amount of time that an owner spends with or focuses on his dog might be decreased temporarily to a level where the dog can become less dependent on its owner for stimulation. This again might be accomplished by involving friends and neighbors in the day-to-day activities of the dog. Increased play time, more frequent walks away from home, car trips to new places and increased personal interaction with a variety of people can help decrease the dog's obsessive dependence on its owner. Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety might also benefit from enrollment in an obedience-training course, so that their self-confidence is reinforced.
A number of other desensitization and counter-conditioning techniques have been suggested to be helpful for dogs with separation anxiety. Some techniques that may be appropriate, in addition to medical treatment and managed behavior modification, might include massage therapy to reduce anxiety and stress; training and participation in performance activities such as fly ball, obedience, agility, tracking, utility, field trials, sledding, weight pulling, etc.; possible application of acupressure techniques; use of herbal or other non-regulated supplements or "remedies"; or other forms of exercise and supportive care which might help to promote relaxation, calmness, confidence and comfort. Some of these more non-traditional, alternative or adjunct approaches lack controlled studies of their effectiveness and may not have established quality control methods or ways to assess their benefit to dogs with separation anxiety. While these approaches are beyond the scope of this article, your veterinarian and referral behavior professionals can discuss them with you in much more detail. What owners of dogs with separation anxiety should know is that help is available. When a dog is gently, kindly and consistently desensitized to new situations in its owner's absence, that dog can learn to accept those situations in a calmer fashion.
Punishment should never be used as a form of "treatment" for dogs with this disorder. It doesn't work, and it can be extremely harmful to the dog and possibly to people around the dog as well. Similarly, dogs with separation anxiety should not be rewarded for their behavior. Unfortunately, many owners with the best of intentions inadvertently reward separation anxiety by comforting and reassuring their frantic dogs when they come home. Experts suggest that this should be avoided, with homecomings generally kept low-key. Treats, attention and affection generally should only be offered when the dog is calm, quiet and relaxed, to reward the desired behavior.
If all else fails, certain prescription and over-the-counter anxiety-reducing medications are available from or upon recommendation by your veterinarian. These can and usually should be given concurrently with tailored behavioral modification techniques. As with any medications, adverse side affects from anti-anxiety drugs are possible and should be discussed with the attending veterinarian. The theoretical goal is to eventually reduce or even discontinue drug therapy once the dog's separation anxiety has been corrected, if that is possible or realistic. Unfortunately, most dogs with significant separation anxiety require life-long medical treatment.
The prognosis for dogs with separation anxiety is quite variable. Successful treatment depends largely upon the owner's commitment to the process, as well as on identification and resolution of the underlying causes of the separation anxiety. As with most disorders, the prognosis is better for dogs that are diagnosed and treated early and consistently. If your dog displays signs consistent with separation anxiety, consider scheduling an appointment with your veterinarian. The behaviors associated with this disorder almost always worsen without treatment, so the sooner treatments are started, the better. While it can take many months of continual behavioral modification exercises and medical therapy before the condition is corrected, most dogs usually improve with time and eventually regain a normal or nearly normal quality of life.
Owners should remember that separation anxiety is not caused by a dog being spoiled, being inherently mean or being disobedient. It is a real medical disorder that requires long-term treatment and a long-term commitment by a caring owner. If your veterinarian is not comfortable treating separation anxiety, he can refer you to a veterinary behavioral specialist who is. Don't give up on a dog that misses you too much. In most cases, you can work with that dog and with your animal care professionals to successfully manage the problem.