Separation Anxiety (Part 1)

Separation Anxiety (Part 1)

by Christine Calder, DVM, DACVB

What is it? 

Separation anxiety is one of the most common behavioral disorders in dogs. approximately, 17-29%
of dogs in the United States are believed to suffer from some form of separation anxiety or distress. this anxiety disorder can be damaging to the human animal bond resulting in shelter surrenders, rehoming, and even euthanasia. Common behaviors associated with separation anxiety include house soiling, destructive behaviors, and an increase in vocalizations (barking, whining, and howling). some dogs can even become aggressive, in their panic, especially when trying to confine them to a crate or as you walk out the door. Clinical signs tend to occur when the family, its person, or even another pet is absent. Some dog owners may not be fully aware of the distress level experienced by the pet and will often come home to find the destruction evidence, urination, and/or defecation in the house. Dogs that are barking and howling often result in a notification from neighbors about the dog’s behavior when left alone. it is important to remember that these dogs are in true distress; therefore, the destruction and/or elimination behavior is not out of “spite” but rather the result of a true “panic attack.” 

Who is most likely to have separation anxiety? 

Research tells us that most dogs with separation anxiety are male, mixed breed dogs however, many females and pure breed dogs experience this disorder as well. There is some evidence indicating that dogs adopted from shelters are at an increased risk along with dogs raised in a single human household. in fact, these dogs are 2.5 times more likely to have separation anxiety than those coming from a multi-human home. An increased incidence of this disorder is seen in orphaned puppies, early weaned puppies, and/or those separated from mom and littermates before 8 weeks of age as these dogs tend to form strong attachments to their human caretakers. other risk factors include puppies that are never left home alone or away from people from a young age, puppies confined to crates for long periods of time, and puppies that experienced a serious illness in the first 4 months of life requiring hospitalization. 

What else can separation anxiety be? 

For every behavior diagnosis, there is a potential medical diagnosis, and therefore a medical illness should always be considered, especially if the clinical signs are new. Some medical conditions to look for are urinary tract infection, intestinal parasites, food allergies, diseases that result in an increase drinking and/or urination, any condition that causes pain, dermatological diseases, seizures, and cognitive decline in older dogs. 

Behavioral rule-outs for separation anxiety include confinement anxiety, lack of mental stimulation and physical exercise (basic needs are not being met), incomplete housetraining, territorial aggression, generalized anxiety, noise and storm phobias. Research tells us that separation anxiety often is not a diagnosis of exclusion, and many dogs have more than one behavioral condition contributing to their behavior. 

Video recordings when your dog is home alone can help to properly diagnose separation anxiety, identify the true cause for the behavior, as well as response to treatment. 

Treatment of separation anxiety 

Treatment for separation anxiety includes a variety of medications and behavior modification techniques to help your dog feel less anxious and more independent. in part ii of this article series, we will go more in depth about the treatment of separation anxiety. in the meantime, if you suspect your pet is suffering from separation anxiety, find a way to avoid leaving your dog home alone, if possible, and talk to your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist about the best treatment plan for your pet.

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