Separation Anxiety in Dogs
After two long years of many owners working from home and the influx of “COVID puppies” as well as many jobs now moving to fully remote positions, the topic of separation anxiety comes up almost weekly in my appointments. I’ve put together some information to hopefully help dog owners recognize the signs of separation anxiety and start intervention early which will give your dog the best prognosis.
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a distress response typically characterized by periods of destruction, vocalization (barking, howling), and elimination (urinating/defecating) that occur when the animal is separated from a person or persons in which they are most attached - typically their owner(s).
Can I do anything to prevent my puppy from having separation anxiety?
There are things you can do to help prevent separation anxiety before it even starts. We recommend exercising your puppy before you leave so that they will rest while you are gone. They should be left in a comfortable place in which they feel safe and given a toy or treat before you leave them. Do not display any emotion before your departure or for 5-15 minutes after you return. You can let your puppy out to use the bathroom right when you get home, but don’t use an excessively excited voice and start playing with them until the 5-15 minute period has passed and they are calm.
How is separation anxiety diagnosed?
With separation anxiety, the distressed behaviors can be seen right before departure, while the owner is gone, when the owner returns, or any combination of the three. Some of the clinical signs we see with separation anxiety are destruction of objects that bear the owner's scent or at exit points, self-inflicted trauma, excessive vocalization (howling/barking), hypersalivation, pacing, panting, escape attempts, decreased or no appetite, shaking/trembling, aggression when people leave the home or try to confine the pet, shadowing behaviors when the owner is home, uncontrolled urination and defecation, and excessive greeting when the owner comes home.
Every pet should undergo an examination by a veterinarian to rule out other causes of distress such as pain and the owners should provide a thorough history of the behaviors being exhibited. Every animal that is urinating/defecating inappropriately should also have bloodwork, a urinalysis, and a fecal performed to rule out a medical problem. We will also discuss your pet’s daily routine to make sure their needs are being met on a daily basis - we may recommend incorporating an exercise routine or adjust your pet’s feeding times.
You may need to set up a surveillance camera in order to get a diagnosis of separation anxiety as other anxieties such as noise aversion, thunderstorm anxiety, and barrier frustration can all present in a similar way.
Why does my dog have separation anxiety?
Dogs are very social creatures so when they are left alone, there can be some degree of distress, however, it is the severity of the level of distress that defines separation anxiety. There are a few theories as to why separation anxiety develops. Some studies show that hyper-attachment to one person could cause separation anxiety but the jury is still out on whether or not this is true. Another cause may be that the pet has general anxieties but is just able to better control them while their owner is around versus when they are alone.
Breed type does not seem to predict whether or not a dog will experience separation anxiety nor does mixed-breed versus purebred dogs. A recent study did find that male dogs were more likely to have separation anxiety than females and while dogs of any age can exhibit signs of separation anxiety, over 50% have shown signs of anxiety before 3 years of age. Contributing factors include dogs who follow their owner everywhere within their home, dogs who greet their owners excessively when they come home, dogs who have never attended an obedience class, dogs who have been found as strays, and those who were acquired from shelters or rescue groups.
How is separation anxiety treated?
Behavior modification is used to treat separation anxiety. Before I go into further detail as to what that may look like, these are things you MUST understand:
Depending on the severity of the anxiety, you may need to incorporate some or all of these into your normal routine. I’ve broken up the exercises to correlate with either the timing of the distress response or the signs you may be seeing.
Following you around the house with a strong attachment behavior or getting overly excited to greet you when you come home.
Try to avoid responding to your pet when they are seeking out attention. Instead, move to more of a reward-based system such as asking them to “sit” or perform other tricks before giving them a treat or praise or your attention. If your dog is resting on their own or has occupied themselves with a toy, use calm praise to let them know you appreciate this behavior and reinforce it. You can try closing doors behind you, use sit/stay commands, or baby gates to discourage your pet from shadowing you. However, if this evokes a stress response then you may need to take a step back; try giving them puzzle games or treats that keep them busy for a period of time before walking away. Remember, during the training period we don’t want to do ANYTHING that provokes their anxiety.
You may need to incorporate relaxation exercises. To do this, get a dog bed, mat, or rug, and have your pet lay or sit on it. Give them a reward for getting into position. In the beginning, you’ll want to stay within a few feet of them standing either next to them or in front of them. Take a couple steps back and then return to them with a small treat. During this period you can repeat the verbage “relax” or “good stay” in a calm voice. If your pet gets up from their spot to follow you or investigate something else, do not acknowledge it. Instead, walk back to their bed/mat and wait until they return to the position, then give them a treat for returning and try the exercise again. When you are ready to end the exercise, say “all done” and let them know it’s okay to move from their position. Training should be done in 5-10 minute increments. As your dog progresses in training, you can start to step further away, turn your back towards them, and alternate their prize with treats or verbal praise. Eventually, you’ll be able to incorporate leaving the room into the exercise but it can take time to get to this point so don’t be discouraged.
If your pet is giving you an excessive greeting when you return home, ignore them for 5 to 15 minutes after you get home. If they jump up on you, say nothing and just turn away from them. Only once they have calmed themselves down do you start to give them your attention. If you pet needs to use the restroom during the 5-15 minute period, go ahead and let them out.
Anxious behavior starts when they notice you are getting ready to leave (i.e. picking up your keys, packing your lunch, putting on your coat, etc).
If you notice that your pet gets anxious when you start your routine to leave, start to do those things without leaving. For example, grab your keys and put on your coat but don’t leave the house. Do this 2-4 times daily until your dog no longer responds to these stimuli with anxious behaviors. Make sure your dog is calm between repetitions. It is important to discontinue the exercise if it causes your dog overt distress as this can actually increase the anxiety in some pets.
You can also try switching up your routine. If you always pack your lunch in the morning, then put your shoes on, then your coat, then grab your keys instead try packing your lunch the night before, put on your coat first before getting your lunch out of the fridge, pick up your keys before you put your shoes on, etc. Again, take special note that this isn't increasing the anxiety response in your dog.
You can also try giving your pet their food or a highly palatable treat before you leave. Consider getting a kong toy (a VERY large one they can’t swallow) and fill it with canned dog food then put it in the freezer before giving it to them. This can keep them occupied for a while. There are also puzzle feeders and food games that yield similar results. Just make sure they are also getting these treats/puzzles at other times of the day in which you don’t leave so they don’t start to associate it with your departure.
It helps if your pet has a safe, relaxed place to go when you leave. See the instructions for a “relaxation exercise” above (4 paragraphs up) and use a favorite bed or space in the household for training so they have a safe place to retreat to when you leave.
You should also start training with graduated planned departures and absences. Buckle up because this is a big one that HAS to be done correctly to be successful and not make their anxieties worse. You’re going to want to have some sort of camera surveillance set up so that you can monitor your pet’s response to your departure to get your timing down right.
Destruction and self-injury
For dogs who eat the couch, your shoes, the door you’ve exited from or those causing self injury such as trying to jump through glass windows, they can not be left home alone. These are the dogs who really need to be seen by a boarded veterinary behaviorist. They often have other anxieties/behavioral issues and need a specialized treatment plan provided by a trained professional. I don't recommend starting any training exercises until you have consulted with a professional. You can easily make the problem worse rather than better, even when you have the best of intentions.
What medications get rid of separation anxiety?
None. No medications will get rid of separation anxiety without behavioral modification. Medications can help aid in the process and may decrease the length of the total training period but they WILL DO NOTHING ON THEIR OWN. Adding in a pharmaceutical to your training plan should be a discussion between you and your veterinarian. There are both long term and short term options depending on your pet’s needs. If your pet is put on long-term medication, we wait 1-2 months after the training period before we start to wean them off the medication very slowly.
Non-prescription products that have been helpful in combination with training are pheromone products such as Adaptil plug-in diffusers or Adaptil collars or nutraceuticals such as Anxitane and Zylkene.
Dr. Siri Horsley is a veterinarian and co-founder of City Limits Vet Clinic. She started the blog, From the Dogtor's Desk, to help provide pet owners with helpful information about vet care and their pets in general.