Canine Separation Anxiety
by Jolee Stegemoller, DVM
A tough, but pretty common problem, often seen in canine patients is anxiety. Some level of short term stress is healthy for an animal, and even humans, because it allows us to survive and thrive despite threats to our well-being. However, when the stress becomes long-term negative side effects may occur leading to unwanted behaviors and health risks. At Alpine Animal Hospital, we like to address any problems with anxiety (or behavior) as part of a yearly wellness exam.
Canine separation anxiety is one of the more common types of anxiety about which dog owners often complain. This condition develops when in conjunction with signs of distress such as drooling or pacing or whining when an owner is preparing to leave, when a dog has a very close bond with its owner and displays a wide range of signs such as destructive behavior, inappropriate elimination, and incessant vocalization. We aren’t always able to tell why a pet develops this problem, but animals that have been abandoned, lost an owner due to death, have moved, or the owner has a drastic schedule change can be triggers for the disorder. It is very important to know that your dog is not doing these things to be spiteful. Dogs don’t have this reasoning capability. This is why PUNISHMENT WILL NOT WORK for correcting problems with separation anxiety. They have learned to associate a mess on the floor and your reaction; they don’t associate making a mess with your response. They are acting out of severe anxiety to you being gone. Never punish, scold, or hit a dog with anxiety issues; it only makes them worse.
The easiest, and best, way to diagnose separation anxiety is to take a video of your pet and watch the behavior right after leaving the home. Dogs that are just plain naughty will often be fine and sleep on the couch and after a short time may become bored and start getting into trouble by tearing up the couch pillows. Dogs with separation anxiety immediately will begin showing signs of stress by pacing, barking, trying to find the owner, or tearing up things around the house.
Treatment for separation anxiety can be very time consuming and frustrating. The core of treatment centers on behavior modification using different approaches such as avoidance, desensitization, counterconditioning, and response substitution. Medical therapy with medication may also be indicated depending on the level of anxiety and the amount of training that has already been tried.
Overall, separation anxiety is a stressful situation for both pet and owner; it takes a great amount of patience and diligence to help a pet overcome this disorder. It is important to rule out any medical issues before jumping to a behavior conclusion. At Alpine Animal Hospital, we like to have a behavior consultation after a thorough physical exam and possible bloodwork. Ruling out a physical condition, we would review videos, talk together extensively about rehabilitation and a therapy plan, and also do a lot of follow up so we can make sure that your pet is getting better! For very severe cases, referral to a veterinary behaviorist (veterinarian who is board certified in behavior) may be helpful. If your pet may be suffering from separation anxiety, let us know and we’ll work together as a team to re-strengthen your bond with your dog!