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Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Dogs with separation anxiety experience emotional distress in their owner’s absence. Learning to understand and properly manage your own pet’s anxiety is key to enjoying a happy, stress-free life together.

Written by Raquel Astacio. Published in September 2022.

The unique bond that is shared between a person and their pet is one unlike any other. It’s a simple relationship, really - your dog loves you, and you love your dog right back. But what happens when your dog becomes a little too attached?

If your own pet becomes extremely anxious, destructive, or upset in your absence, they may be suffering from a behavioral condition known as separation anxiety. The concept is simple in theory, though often complex in action: dogs with separation anxiety experience real, tangible emotional distress when separated from the person they are most attached to.

For many owners, this type of unforeseen anxiety can cause a huge riff in your otherwise simple relationship with your pet. The thought of your dog losing his mind in your absence creates a difficult challenge - how do you leave the house without fearing for the safety of your pet, your belongings, and your home?

What is Separation Anxiety in Dogs?

It is impossible to know how to combat this behavior in your own pet without fully understanding what exactly separation anxiety is. While the symptoms and triggers may look differently for every dog, the condition itself does not vary. The American Humane Association describes this condition as follows:

“Separation anxiety describes dogs that usually are overly attached or dependent on family members.” says American Humane. “They become extremely anxious and show distress behaviors such as vocalization, destruction or house soiling when separated from the owners. Most dogs with separation anxiety try to remain close to their owners, follow them from room to room and rarely spend time outdoors alone.”

Experts in canine behavior estimate that 20-40% of all household dogs will struggle with separation anxiety at some point in their lives. And while dogs are, by far, the most sensitive to this condition, it has also been recognized in cats, birds, horses, livestock, primates, and even humans.

What Causes Separation Anxiety in Dogs?

While separation anxiety in dogs usually involves the owner-to-dog relationship, it can also develop in a dog-to-dog relationship. In this particular event, dogs will form an intense bond amongst one another and may experience emotional distress when one pet leaves the home without the other.

Many of the known triggers in an owner-to-dog relationship involve changes (either minor or significant) in your dog’s life. Some of the most commonly witnessed triggers include:

  • Changes in schedule or routine
  • Family changes (the loss or addition of a new family member)
  • Change of residence (a move to a new house or the rehoming of a pet himself)
  • Fear of the dark

Studies suggest that shelter dogs or rehomed dogs are much more likely to develop separation anxiety than those that have lived with the same family or in the same home since their adolescence. The loss of an important person, animal, or group in your dog’s life can be detrimental to his mental health and may cause significant behavioral or emotional changes.

Many experts believe that a dog’s genetics and breed can play a role in the development of separation anxiety. Some of the most common breeds associated with separation anxiety include:

  • Weimaraners
  • Whippets
  • English Springer Spaniels
  • German Shepherds
  • Huskies
  • Vizslas
  • German shorthaired pointers
  • Australian shepherds
  • Border collies

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Dogs?

Separation anxiety in dogs is most commonly diagnosed based on the observation of their behavior. And while the signs and symptoms of this particular condition may look different for each dog, some of the most common include:

  • Increased anxiety as you prepare to leave the house
  • Pacing
  • Panting
  • Excessive drooling
  • Destruction of the home (flooring, walls, furniture, etc)
  • Inappropriate elimination (peeing or pooping inside the house during your absence)
  • Refusing food or water
  • Excessive vocalization (barking, howling, crying, etc)
  • Obsessive attempts to break free of a crate or room (maybe even out of the house itself)

Separation Anxiety in Senior Dogs

If your senior dog who has never had an anxious episode in his life suddenly begins to display some of the aforementioned symptoms, he may be developing separation anxiety. Though it may come as a shock to some owners, this is actually not uncommon at all.

Senior dogs, especially when they begin to lose their bearings, hearing, or sight, may develop a stronger-than-usual attachment to their owners. The changes that your dog’s body will go through as they age can be scary and your senior dog may rely on you, his person, to be a source of comfort and security.

This type of behavioral change may be particularly noticeable at night or in the dark. If your senior pet begins pacing the house at all hours of the night, howling, barking, or seems generally disoriented, he may be suffering from night-time separation anxiety. To alleviate this, you may consider leaving on a few lights throughout the home or investing in nightlights to illuminate your pet’s normal walking paths.

It should also be mentioned that some senior pets will develop a doggy-version of dementia. Similarly, to humans, a dog in this state will appear disoriented and may forget, altogether, his normal routine. This type of mental deterioration can be a leading cause of the sudden development of separation anxiety in older, geriatric pets.

Can Separation Anxiety in Dogs be Cured?

While there is no one-and-done cure for separation anxiety in dogs, there are many ways to reduce, alleviate, and even prevent your pet’s emotional distress during your absence. Deducing which treatment or training method may be best for your own pet will start with determining the severity of your pet’s condition. Pet’s with separation anxiety often fall into one of two categories:

Mild to Moderate: Pets with mild to moderate separation anxiety may be upset when you leave, but will not usually be destructive. A pet in this category may whine or cry for a few minutes after the front door closes, but will continue to eat, drink, and play when left at home. Pets in this category will not potty in the house, nor will they destroy things they shouldn’t.

Mild to moderate cases of separation anxiety may respond well to counterconditioning. This process is designed to reverse the anxious, fearful pathways of your pet’s brain, instead teaching them to be calm and relaxed (even in your absence). This is often done by giving your pet a special (only for alone time) treat to enjoy when you leave the house, and praising them generously for good behavior when you return. Investing in the help of a reputable trainer is a great idea for pet parents who want to learn the ins-and-outs of counterconditioning their own mild to moderately anxious pets.

Moderate to Severe: Pets with moderate to severe separation anxiety experience legitimate emotional distress when left alone. This may manifest in improper elimination, refusal of food or water, destruction of the home, and more. Pets in this category are often too worked up to respond to counterconditioning and will likely require a combination of training and medication to resolve their emotional and behavioral concerns.

Preventing or Reducing Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Ensuring that your own pet has a happy and relaxed home life, even in your absence, starts with the intentional prevention of separation anxiety. Teaching your pet to be calm and relaxed when you leave the house, creating a safe space for them to enjoy in your absence, and praising good behavior are all essential first steps.

Create A Safe Space

Dogs with anxiety need a safe space to relax in when you leave the house. This space should be secure, comfortable, and have all of the essentials. This can be a dedicated room in your home, a crate, or even a corner of the living room designed just for your dog. A proper safe space should include:

  • A comfortable bed
  • A full bowl of water
  • Plenty of distracting toys (such as a Kong or Treat Puzzle)

If closed doors contribute to your pet’s anxiety, consider, instead, using baby gates to block off any spaces in the home that you don’t want to give your dog access to.

Learn (and Avoid) Your Dog’s Triggers

While your actual departure from the home is, for most dogs, the biggest trigger, there can be several smaller triggers leading up to the big event. Identifying these triggers and avoiding them when possible can help resolve tense and worried behavior as you prepare to leave the house.

And for triggers that can’t be avoided (such as picking up your car keys, opening the garage door, etc), consider implementing these things into your routine when at home. This will allow your pet to become familiar with these scary actions while having you there to defend them.

For example, if the sound of your garage door opening or closing is an anxiety trigger, consider operating the garage door several times throughout the day when you are home. Then, reward your pet generously for responding appropriately. This training technique is a great way to desensitize your pet to scary or unknown noises.

Practice Makes Perfect

Another great training technique is to practice short absences throughout the day, teaching your pet that, though you have to leave without them sometimes, you will always return back home. This can be as simple as placing your pet in their Safe Space, leaving the room or the house for five minutes, and then returning the way you came. When you return, act calm and pretend as if nothing happened. If your dog reacts calmly to your return, reward with a treat or with praise for desired behavior.

Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs

In addition to training efforts, some dogs may require more creative treatment options to fully maintain their anxiety. If your own pet is responding well to training efforts, but doesn’t quite seem as relaxed as he should be, consider using one of these great treatment options.

Prescription Medication

Involving your family veterinarian in your pet’s treatment plan is a great way to manage your pet’s anxiety from all angles (both medically and behaviorally). If your pet seems anxious by nature, he may respond well to a daily anxiety reliever such as Fluoxetine (Prozac). Or, instead, your vet may recommend an as-needed relief medication (such as Trazadone or Acepromazine). These medications are meant to be used on an as-needed basis and are great for pet’s who aren’t left alone often or are triggered by singular events (such as car rides).

CBD for Separation Anxiety

Many owners have turned to CBD as a natural source of relief for their anxious pets. The calming, soothing effects of CBD, in conjunction with proper training and conditioning, may help your dog to relax and be more receptive to otherwise stressful events. As an added benefit, CBD is an all-natural supplement option and could allow you to manage your pet’s anxiety without adding manufactured chemicals to the mix.

Melatonin for Separation Anxiety

Melatonin is another great option for reducing your pet’s anxiety. Used in humans for a good night’s sleep, Melatonin is designed to communicate with the receptors in your pet’s brain, telling them that it’s okay to relax. While this sleep supplement may cause drowsiness for some, many pet owners make use of Melatonin regularly to keep their dog’s anxiety at bay.

Home Remedies

In addition to these proven treatment methods, there are many popular home remedies that owner’s use to keep their pet’s calm, cool, and collected. Some of the most popular include:

  • Anti-anxiety vests (such as a Thundershirt)
  • Sufficiently exercising your pet before you leave the house
  • Gifting your dog with worn clothes that carry your scent
  • Playing music or leaving the TV on as a distraction

Learning to live with your pet’s separation anxiety can be frustrating. As pet parents, all that we want is to ensure that our fur-babies are safe and comfortable and it can be heart wrenching to watch them struggle in our absence. Fortunately, this is a manageable condition and, by implementing a few small changes at home and investing in the right tools, you and your pet can continue to live a happy, stress-free life together (whether you're at home or away).

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