Some say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Unfortunately, if you ask some pets, they would counter that absence often makes their heart race and a panic attack set in! One of the most frequent behavior issues I am presented with is that a pet may urinate, vocalize, defecate, destroy furniture or walls, or scratch at the door when left alone. Although these signs may only indicate the need for some remedial training, they may also point towards a more serious issue. Often these behaviors are accompanied by signs of true mental distress, such as drooling, trembling, and other signs that are an indication of separation anxiety (SA). SA is most often triggered when a dog becomes upset because of separation (or the potential for separation) from their family members. Often their anxiety is so severe that their attempts to reconnect with their guardians may result in self-injury or destruction of doors and windows in their environment.
The symptoms of separation anxiety may vary. Dogs that are suffering from SA typically begin to exhibit signs prior to their guardians leaving. They will often seem anxious or depressed when the owners are preparing to leave the house as they begin to pick up on “departure cues” such as putting on shoes, picking up a handbag, or turning off the lights. Usually, the pet will begin to bark, pace, or circle within a few minutes of being left home by themselves. Often a surveillance camera or baby monitor is helpful in capturing this behavior. The barking and howling will continue until the pet owner returns, and doesn’t seem to be triggered by anything aside from being left alone. Some dogs may urinate or defecate as a symptom of SA. If a dog also has “accidents” while the pet owner is still home, the inappropriate potty habits likely are not caused by SA. The same may be said about dogs that exhibit chewing, digging, destructive behavior when left alone or are separated from their owners.
There’s no clearly defined cause of separation anxiety in dogs. Because the majority of dogs that exhibit SA are adopted from a shelter environment rather than being raised with a single family since puppyhood, behaviorists believe that the loss of an important member of their “pack” may trigger their disease. Other changes that are less dramatic changes may also be associated with the development or progression of SA. These changes may include a change in schedule, a move to a new home, loss of vision, or a change in household membership.
In order to diagnose SA, your veterinarian will first rule out medical causes of any symptoms. For example, if your pet is having urinary accidents, a urine test may be performed to rule out an infection. Your veterinarian will also rule out other behavioral issues such as incomplete or regression of house training, urine marking, boredom, etc. Once it is determined that your pet is suffering from SA, your veterinarian will recommend treatment. For mild separation anxiety, treatment may simply consist of behavioral modification and teach the pet owner techniques for “counter-conditioning” and “positive reinforcement”. For moderate to severe SA, a more complex treatment program may be recommended. In general, your veterinarian will help to eliminate pre-departure cues first. Next, they will guide you on graduated departures and absences to increase your pet’s confidence. Finally, they may recommend medications to augment the behavioral modification techniques. Always remember not to punish or scold your dog when they exhibit these frustrating symptoms to their anxiety, as punishment will often worsen the signs.
A consult with a veterinary behaviorist may be recommended if your pet has a severe case of SA or if your veterinarian isn’t comfortable with the techniques used to treat SA. The good news is that the majority of pets are able to live happier and less stressful lives once they begin treatment.