Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Written by Small Door's medical experts
Separation anxiety in dogs can cause pet owners an incredible amount of frustration. However, understanding the underlying causes of it may help mitigate some frustration, as well as providing owners with the information they need to manage and treat their dog’s condition.
In This Article
Separation anxiety is a behavioral condition that dogs exhibit when they are separated from their owner. This typically happens within minutes of the owner leaving the dog. While this condition is more common in young dogs, older dogs may develop separation anxiety as well, which is why it is important for all dog owners to be aware of this issue.
The signs and symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs are mostly behavioral and usually occur when dogs are left alone. You may notice:
Excessive panting and salivation
Excessive barking or howling
Urination or defecation around the house
Dogs with separation anxiety tend to vocalize when they are left alone by barking, whining, or howling. Panting and salivation are also common. These signs can begin before separation if dogs learn to anticipate their owner’s departure.
Vocalization can cause owners trouble with neighbors or landlords, and accidents within the house, as well as destructive behaviors like chewing on door frames, can cause lasting property damage. Some destructive behavior can even lead to veterinary emergencies. Consuming foreign bodies like clothing, coth, or garbage may require surgical intervention, adding to dog and owner stress. Dogs with separation anxiety may also chew, bite, or lick at themselves excessively, which can lead to infection.
Behavioral signs of separation anxiety in dogs often cause problems for owners, and can even put dogs themselves at risk. Property damage and physical harm, as well as tarnished relations with neighbors and property owners can also occur.
Dogs develop separation anxiety for a variety of reasons, but they usually fall into a few distinct categories.
Common causes of Separation Anxiety:
Dogs get separation anxiety when they are not capable of comforting themselves. For some dogs, this happens when a physical illness causes moderate to severe discomfort, while others may develop separation anxiety after a change in environment. Moving, changes in routine, introducing new family members or pets, and other adjustments can all trigger separation anxiety. Dogs recently adopted from shelters may also develop separation anxiety (although paradoxically, the separation anxiety tends to develop 1-2 months after being brought home).
Senior dogs and dogs with cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), which is similar to dementia in humans, can also develop separation anxiety. Some of the symptoms of CDS and separation anxiety are similar, like house soiling and anxiety. Difficulty seeing at night (referred to as “night blindness”) can also occasionally cause clinical signs that mimic separation anxiety.
In some cases, owners unwittingly encourage behavior changes that can lead to separation anxiety. Giving a dog too much attention prior to leaving or when returning can raise their anxiety levels during these times. However, bear in mind that dogs with unknown backgrounds may have causes that are difficult to determine, as it is impossible for owners to know all the details of their dog’s life before adoption.
The underlying causes of separation anxiety can be behavioral, medical, or the result of a change in the dog’s environment. The cause may not always be easy or possible to determine, but discovering the trigger can be helpful during treatment.
Before treating your dog for separation anxiety it’s important to rule out other behavioral issues as many of them have overlapping symptoms. Similar behavior issues include:
Incontinence caused by medical problems
Urinary incontinence in dogs is a medical condition where a dog voids its bladder uncontrollably. It’s not uncommon for dogs with incontinence to be unaware that they have soiled themself. This can happen when they are excited or even sleeping. There are many medical issues that can cause urinary incontinence in dogs. Some of these include: kidney disease, bladder stones, neurological problems, abnormalities of the genitalia, urinary tract infection, a weak sphincter caused by old age, and hormone problems after being spayed. Check with your veterinarian to rule out these issues before starting behavioral treatment for separation anxiety.
Medication side effects
Many medications have side effects that can cause frequent urination or house soiling. Make sure to contact your veterinarian if your dog is taking medication and having issues with soiling in the house.
Submissive or excitement urination
It is not uncommon for dogs to urinate during greetings, physical contact, play, when being scolded, or when putting on a leash. Dogs will typically show physical signs of submissive posture in interactions. This includes displaying their stomach, holding their tail low, flattening their ears against their head, crouching, and shaking.
Incomplete house training
A dog, especially one that is younger, that sometimes urinates in the house might not be fully house trained. This could mean that they need additional training before they are completely house trained or the dog was punished after urinating and is afraid to go to the bathroom while the owner is nearby or watching.
Some dogs will urinate small amounts in the house to scent mark or claim an area as their territory. This can occur when a dog has moved to a new house or when a dog feels territorial as a result of other animals moving into the house. This is most common in male dogs, however, some female dogs will mark as well.
Many young dogs will be destructive by chewing or digging even when their owners are home. This is a common behavioral issue and can be fixed through training.
Dogs can become bored when their owners are gone. This boredom can transfer into destructive or disruptive behavior. This can be resolved by providing mental stimulation such as a puzzle toy to keep your dog engaged while you are away.
Excessive barking or howling
It is not uncommon for dogs to bark or howl in response to unfamiliar sights and sounds in their environment. This can be true whether their owner is home or not. It’s possible that local construction or even new neighbors could be triggering the dog's excessive howling.
Separation anxiety in dogs is diagnosed based upon a dog’s symptoms and behavior. Dogs usually exhibit symptoms of separation anxiety within the first 15 to 30 minutes after an owner’s departure. Videoing a dog during this timeframe can help your veterinarian in the diagnosis.
Once a diagnosis of separation anxiety has been made, your veterinarian will try to determine the underlying cause. This is especially important if the cause is medical in nature, as your dog could be suffering from a severe condition. Diagnosing the underlying cause will also help during treatment, as most treatment options involve behavior modification on behalf of both dogs and owners. However, this process can take time, as in many cases the cause may not be immediately evident. Your veterinarian will likely recommend blood work possibly diagnostic imaging. They may even refer you to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist.
Diagnosing separation anxiety in dogs is dependent on clinical signs. If your veterinarian diagnoses your dog with separation anxiety, he or she will then attempt to find the underlying cause of the condition, which can take time.
Separation anxiety can be challenging to treat. If the underlying cause is medical, resolving the condition is the first step toward addressing separation anxiety. Anti-anxiety medications like clomipramine (Clomicalm) or fluoxetine (Prozac) may also help, along with calming aids like pheromones or products like Anxiety Wrap or Thunder Shirts.
Even in cases of medically induced separation anxiety, however, behavior modification is critical for successful treatment. Consulting a trainer or a behavioral specialist recommended by your veterinarian can help you create a plan for treating your dog’s condition. Common steps include increasing exercise and play, encouraging independence, ignoring attention-seeking behaviors and encouraging calm behaviors, adjusting arrival and departure habits to reduce stress, and ceasing punishment, as punishment is ineffective and only increases your dog’s stress levels.
Treating separation anxiety takes time, and some dogs never learn to reliably comfort themselves. During the training process, consider using alternative measures like pet sitters, doggy daycare centers, or making arrangements to take your dog with you whenever possible.
Before giving your dog medication for any kind of behavioral problem you should consult with a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist.
In severe cases of separation anxiety, some dogs are so distraught that treatment cannot be implemented without the aid of medication. With the help of anti-anxiety medications, many dogs will be able to handle short periods of isolation without experiencing any anxiety. This can also accelerate the separation anxiety treatment progress.
Over time your dog should become accustomed to being left at home alone with the help of the drug and behavioral treatment. When you believe the time is right, you can begin to wean your dog off of the anti-anxiety medication. You should continue the behavior training until you believe your dog no longer suffers from separation anxiety.
Should you put a dog with Separation Anxiety in a crate?
Crate training a dog with separation anxiety is helpful for some dogs if they believe the crate is a safe place. However, if the crate is seen as a negative place or causes your dog stress then it’s not a good solution. The best way to identify if this will work for you is to monitor your dog's behavior when they are left in a crate when you are home. If they show signs of distress such as frantic escape attempts, continuous howling or barking, heavy breathing or excessive salivation, then keeping them in a crate probably isn’t the best option for you. Another possible solution is keep your dog confined in a single room behind a closed door or a baby gate.
Is there a cure for Separation Anxiety in dogs?
Separation anxiety can be cured, especially if the root of the problem is discovered. However, successfully curing separation anxiety is entirely dependent on the owner, dog, and the cause of the problem. Some dogs recover with training and consistent routines, while others may need a change in lifestyle habits or may need to remain on medication long-term to decrease their anxiety.
Is Separation Anxiety Contagious for Humans or Other Pets?
No, separation anxiety is not contagious to humans, although it may lead to anxiety in owners and other pets in the household. In some cases, other pets may feed off their housemate’s separation anxiety, resulting in secondary behavioral problems.
What is the cost of treating Separation Anxiety in dogs?
Separation anxiety does not have an instant cure. Working with your veterinarian or a behavioral specialist may take multiple visits, which can add up to significant costs. Consistency is important to treatment, so make sure that you can both afford and follow through with training schedules before you begin. Dogs with underlying conditions may have additional costs associated with treatment, like medication, monitoring, and diagnostics range in price, and separation anxiety can cause costly damage to your dog and your property.
Separation anxiety is treatable, but treatment takes time and can be expensive. To avoid unnecessary costs, try to establish a routine that works for your schedule and that keeps your dog safe during necessary absences.
Managing separation anxiety requires patience. Your veterinarian will help you come up with a treatment plan and training regimen, but there are some things you can do in the meantime to alleviate some of your dog’s stress. Frequent exercise, for example, can help tire your dog out and stimulate her physically and mentally prior to time spent alone. Training, exercise, and play sessions not only eliminate boredom, but they also help you build stronger bonds with your dog, and can help build your dog’s confidence. Slow feeding bowls or toys can also provide your dog with a tasty distraction while you are gone. This can be especially helpful if you are only leaving the house for short periods, as it can reinforce positive experiences with solitude.
Many owners accidentally reinforce negative behaviors. Staying calm when leaving the house will help your dog remain calm, and it is equally important to remain calm when you return. While it may be hard to ignore your dog’s exuberant greeting, feeding into it can heighten your dog’s anxiety around arrivals and departures.
Some high-energy dogs may require more stimulation than others. Doggy daycares can help tire these dogs out while also reducing the stress that separation anxiety places on owners. Getting involved in dog sports or activities can also stimulate these dogs and reduce boredom-induced destructive behaviors.
The most important part of managing your dog’s separation anxiety is consistency. Resolving behavioral problems takes time, and stopping training can set your dog back.
Separation anxiety is not always preventable, but owners can take some steps to reduce the risk. Socializing puppies and encouraging positive experiences with alone time through crate training or other techniques will help dogs handle some of the life changes that can lead to separation anxiety. Having a “safe place” like a crate will help your dog comfort themselves in your absence, and also lowers their chances of engaging in destructive behavior.
Active, stimulated dogs may be less likely to develop separation anxiety. Keeping your pet active can help, and regular training sessions even for well-behaved dogs will reinforce positive behaviors. Routine exercise and training also provide structure. Sometimes, relaxing a training routine can actually lead to separation anxiety, which is another possible cause to consider when you speak with your veterinarian.
Discouraging certain behaviors can also help prevent separation anxiety from developing. Needy behaviors like scratching or excessively seeking attention may seem cute but could be a sign that your dog does not know how to comfort themselves. You can help them become more self-sufficient by gently discouraging or ignoring these behaviors.
Is there a vaccine for separation anxiety in dogs?
No, separation anxiety is a behavioral condition.
What NOT to do if your dog has Separation Anxiety
Do NOT punish or scold your dog. This anxious behavior is because they are distressed, not done out of spite or disobedience. Your dog is scared or upset and their separation anxiety is how they are trying to cope with the situation. By punishing your dog you will only make them more upset and the problem will get even worse. Finding positive ways to redirect this behavior will result in everyone being happier in the end.
Separation anxiety is a treatable condition. In some cases, it’s preventable with training and behavioral modification. As with most conditions, the sooner you get a diagnosis and begin treatment, the better the prognosis.