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Separation Anxiety in Dogs

By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. Updated: January 1, 2018
Separation Anxiety in Dogs

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The attachment dogs have with their human owners can be intense. This is partly due to the herd mentality bred into our furry friends. This means they are used to spending 24 hours out of their day with companions and, if they are your only pet, this means you and your family. If we add to this inadequate socialization with other dogs, sudden routine changes, frustration at not having enough outdoor exercise and simply spending so much time alone, it is unsurprising dogs develop a level of anxiety when separated from pet owners. AnimalWised has all the information you need on separation anxiety in dogs. Reading it will help you recognize the symptoms and work out how you can best alleviate them to have a happy dog.

You may also be interested in: Anxiety in Cats

What is separation anxiety?

Herd mentality in dogs is still not completely understood. While there are similarities between wild dogs and pet dogs, the long history of domestication in dogs has shown that their behavior changes. The biggest change is that the top of their pack is, or should be, you. You know where food is kept, you provide them love and you provide them safety. They will show their submission to you in various ways, such as body and tail wagging or face licking[1].

However, with your dog so dependent on your for both its basic needs and its emotional attachment, your leaving the dog can have a serious negative effect. One reason for this is safety. When a pack leader leaves, the dogs are left to fend for themselves and any noises or perceived threats to their safety can cause grave concern. They feel threatened, in a constant state of danger and puts them in a heightened state of alertness. This takes their toll on the dog and leads to anxiety.

What is strange is why some dogs will have separation anxiety when home alone and others do not. Some believe it may differ depending on breed type, but most will attribute it to an incident or traumatic event. What is known is that it is a common problem affecting around 17% of dogs according to American College of Veterinary Behaviorists[2].

Separation anxiety has different causes and can happen at any time, although it is believed that it most likely stems from something during their youth. For some dogs, the anxiety might last for a short time after you separate. For others, it can last the entire time you are gone. This can be very stressful for the dog and lead to other related health issues.

Separation Anxiety in Dogs - What is separation anxiety?

Causes of separation anxiety in dogs

While it is difficult to determine the exact cause of separation anxiety in your dog, there are some possible reasons your pooch might be more susceptible. What can be even more difficult is knowing what behavior is best for them as it can sometimes seem counterintuitive.

As we stated before, separation anxiety in dogs is caused by having an excessive attachment to its owner. However, what leads to this excessive attachment and triggers anxiety can be quite complicated. Some suggestions include:

  • Sudden withdrawal of attention: if you spend practically all day with your dog, providing love and attention, they will become used to it. Dogs often have great stamina and they feel rewarded by your attention. If you suddenly withdraw this attention, they can feel like they have done something wrong or that danger is imminent, leading to separation anxiety.
  • Routine changes: similar to withdrawing attention, if you establish a routine with your dog, then change it, your dog may become anxious. It can feel vulnerable and develop intense fear. This can happen if you are unemployed, then get a job going from lots of free time to little. Similarly, if your dog is attached to children or a student, when class starts again, dogs do not always understand why they are left alone so long.
  • Major life change: going back to school can be a change which leads to anxiety, but some other big changes are particularly jarring for some dogs. These include moving house, moving to a different climate (say country to the city), birth of a child or death of a guardian. While they might be difficult for even us humans to deal with, dogs can find it so difficult to understand they become deeply upset.
  • Lack of stimulation: if your dog does not get enough stimulation even when you do spend time together, then when you leave their anxiety can rise from frustration or boredom. This is only one reason, attention and exercise are imperative for your dog's health.
  • Too much attention: dogs value attention so highly, it doesn't even always matter if it is good attention or bad[3]. If you give your dog too much attention, it might not be able to handle times of separation well.
  • Trauma: a traumatic event can have a serious effect on your dog's psychology. It can frighten it into thinking that when you leave, it might happen again. Unfortunately, as with humans, events which your dog perceive as traumatic may not even register with you.
  • Puppies: if separation anxiety begins when the dog is a pup, it is often to do with time spent with its mother. Weaning too early can lead the dog to become very anxious as it will not understand why it is not allowed to stay with its mother and/or siblings. Not socializing your dog properly (with both humans and other pets), especially in the first 4 months of its life, can be anxiety inducing later in life.
Separation Anxiety in Dogs - Causes of separation anxiety in dogs

Symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs

Abnormal dog behavior can often be a result of separation anxiety. Unfortunately, as it often happens while you are separated they can be difficult to monitor. Some dogs will feel separation anxiety with one particular owner, so another observer (family member, housemate, etc.) might be able to see their behavior. They might also be quite imposed by it. Many dogs, however, will begin to show their anxiety as soon as they think your are leaving. This can even happen when you leave temporarily to make a cup of coffee.

Here are some of the symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs for your to look out for:

  • The dog becomes restless and nervous when you move towards the door or get up to leave. Pacing when you're gone can also occur. Excessive shaking in the limbs and body can happen, in particular with smaller dogs such as small terriers.
  • Their behavior becomes destructive. Some dogs are simply destructive and will eat socks simply because they do not know boundaries. Many dogs with separation anxiety, however, will destroy furniture, cushions, etc. out of fear and frustration. You often won't notice it until you come home to see the actual property damage.
  • Many dogs with anxiety disorder will scratch at doors or windows, fearful of being left alone and trying to get through the exit to rejoin you.
  • Urinating and defecating in the house is a common symptom of separation anxiety. This is particularly noticeable in dogs which are otherwise well-trained and will not soil inside the house when you are present.
  • Exaggerated reception. If your dog is particularly happy to see you, jumping, licking and demanding attention, it could be a sign of great anxiety during the tome of your separation.
  • Vomiting can occur in severe cases as their nerves are so shocked, it causes them to regurgitate their food. Eating their own faeces (coprophagia) has also been known to occur in anxious dogs, although it can happen for other reasons.
  • Howling and barking while you are gone.

If you detect this symptoms of separation anxiety in your dog and they persist, you will need to see a veterinarian to seek professional advice.

Separation Anxiety in Dogs - Symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs

Treatment for separation anxiety in dogs

It can be very tricky to properly alleviate the symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs due to the catch-22 of not being present when they exhibit the behavior. You cannot discipline a dog for destroying property after the fact because it will not necessarily associate the punishment with the action.

While it can feel cold, if you give your dog too much attention when it reunited with you, it can only encourage anxiousness when you leave. Their exaggerated behavior when they see you is reinforced, showing that their fears and anxieties while you have been gone are reinforced. Veterinarians recommend ignoring the dog while they display this behavior until they can down. The same goes for when you leave. Don't provide affection and try to reassure them with physical contact as it can rile up their anxiety. Instead, act normal as if your leaving is no problem. Withholding affection in this way can feel wrong, but it is better in the long run.

It is important to make sure your dog experiences periods of time alone without contact. You shouldn't be leading a needlessly sedentary life anyway, but if you cuddle and play with your dog all day, it will hurt them more when you leave for longer periods. Having a busy schedule and normalizing your departure is important for dogs with separation anxiety. In saying this, your dog will still need lots of love and attention when it is appropriate to do so.

Break routines and show your dog that changes in them do not mean there is potential danger to them. Practically, feeding your dog before you leave can be helpful as it reassures them they will be OK, even when you are not present. You can leave the TV or radio on to give the impression they are not alone. In fact, there is even a cable channel in America called DogTV which might be helpful in treating anxiety in dogs. It is designed to appeal specifically to a dog's interests and is even color coded to suit their eyes.

Finally, anti-anxiety medication such as fluoxetine, benzodiasepine and others can be prescribed in serious cases of separation anxiety. However, they should be discussed with a vet first and should be a last resort after behavioral therapy. Never give a dog human intended medication as there may be severe contraindications.

Toys to help with separation anxiety

Dogs which spend a lot of time on their own need positive reinforcement when together. You will need to make sure the environment in which you leave them is comfortable and a safe space to be. You do not want to associate being alone with these negative feelings of fear and anxiety.

Toys can help make this environment feel safe and comfortable, so leaving out bones and chew toys will give them something to occupy their stressed minds. However, a good option for helping to ease anxiety is a kong toy. This is a toy where you put a treat inside and the dog has to work to ease it out. It should keep them occupied and distract them from being anxious and potentially damaging your property in your absence. Squeaker toys can also be helpful to provide noise and distraction from their anxious feelings.

Separation Anxiety in Dogs - Toys to help with separation anxiety

This article is purely informative. AnimalWised does not have the authority to prescribe any veterinary treatment or create a diagnosis. We invite you to take your pet to the veterinarian if they are suffering from any condition or pain.

If you want to read similar articles to Separation Anxiety in Dogs, we recommend you visit our Mental problems category.

References

1 http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0133978

2 http://www.dacvb.org/about/faqs/

3 https://www.npr.org/2011/05/26/136497064/the-new-science-of-understanding-dog-behavior

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Ed
I bought a dog toy called "Digz" and it helped calm my dog down when I was away.

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