by Dr Vivian Loren on Jul 13, 2023.
Separation anxiety in dogs is a big topic, affecting more than 50% of dogs in both the USA and the UK.
From their enthusiastic greetings to their comforting presence, dogs have an extraordinary ability to bring joy into our lives. They are incredibly affectionate, depending on the breed, and for good reason they're known as "man's best friend". However, this personality can often turn against them due to an intense fear called separation anxiety, or the fear of being left alone.
You may argue that compared to cats, who cherish their "me time", dogs are much more dependent, and this difference is one of the main causes for this high prevalence of anxiety in dogs.
Other types of anxiety are to do with loud noises, strangers, unknown places and so on, but let's focus on separation anxiety for now.
What is separation anxiety in dogs?
Separation anxiety is a behavioural condition which causes a dog to become distressed and anxious whenever they are separated from their owners. The separation can be either for a short period or for a longer period. Here are some of the main symptoms that may indicate your dog has separation anxiety.
The most common sign is howling, barking or whining. This can start shortly after the owner has left the house, and can persist for long periods, often until the owner has returned.
If you live in a flat, or even a house and you leave your dog alone during the day or night, it is important to either check with your neighbours or get one of those indoor smart cameras. It can otherwise be difficult to know whether your dog does any howling or barking when you're not home.
Separation anxiety is not always immediately obvious and easily picked up. Other times, there can be more obvious signs.
Scratching, Chewing, Digging
This is common in dogs left alone as well. It often occurs in combination with barking and howling and is usually aimed at points of entry such as doors or windows.
This indicates that the dog feels trapped inside and is trying to escape.
If your dog has access to a yard, they may start scratching the fence or trying to dig under it.
In severe cases, these attempts to escape can lead to self-injury.
Urinating or pooping indoors can be another sign of separation anxiety, so don't ignore it. A house trained adult dog should not be pooping indoors, unless there are other problems such as this.
Dogs may pick places that carry the owner's scent, like a bed or a couch. Some dogs might also show signs of excessive drooling or panting, pacing, and attempts to prevent the owner from leaving.
With both the chewing of furniture and the house soiling aspect, it's important to distinguish whether these occur due to separation anxiety, or simply due to the lack of proper training. One way to tell is if they predominantly occur during the owner's absence.
Trembling is also common in dogs with any kind of anxiety. This may manifest just before you leave, or you may see them trembling when you come back.
Excessive panting, although can be normal in certain situations, is often a sign of anxiety in dogs.
Which breeds are more likely to develop separation anxiety?
Here is a table with some of the breeds, which in my opinion are more likely to develop separation anxiety, as well as explaining why that is.
|Labrador Retriever||Very sociable nature and can struggle with being left alone.|
|Border Collie||Extremely intelligent and active, and they need constant mental and physical stimulation. They can become anxious when left alone.|
|Bichon Frise||They're companion dogs that form strong bonds with their owners and can struggle with separation.|
|Vizsla||Often referred to as "Velcro dogs" for their attachment to humans.|
|German Shepherds||Known to be deeply loyal and protective, they can become anxious when separated from their family. They also need lots of exercise during the day to use up their energy.|
|Australian Shepherds||Australian Shepherds are very active and intelligent and can become stressed when left alone for long periods.|
|Jack Russell Terrier||Energetic and intelligent, they need a lot of mental and physical stimulation.|
|Toy Poodles||Known to form strong bonds with their owners, separation can cause them significant stress.|
|Cockapoo||Close companion dogs that don't like to be left alone for too long at a time.|
|Cavalier King Charles Spaniel||They're known for their affectionate and dependent nature, making separation challenging.|
Causes of separation anxiety in dogs
The causes of separation anxiety are not fully understood. There is thought to be an element of genetic and environmental factors, including the current living environment and early life experiences.
For example, rescue dogs or dogs that have been abused, are more likely to develop separation anxiety.
A history of multiple owners or time spent in a shelter might also increase the risk of separation anxiety.
Certain changes in a dog's life may also trigger separation anxiety. These include a change in the family's schedule that leads to the dog being left alone more often, a move to a new house, the loss of a family member or another pet, or a traumatic event such as a violent storm or an accident.
It can often be hard to pinpoint an exact cause as it tends to be a combination of factors. For example, one of my friends was telling me how her dog became more stressed and thinks she developed separation anxiety after the death of one of their chicken.
Separation Anxiety Affects Both Dog and Owner
Separation anxiety should not be ignored as it can significantly impact a dog's physical and mental health.
Persistent anxiety can lead to a chronic stress response. Just as in humans, this persistently high stress is extremely damaging to health. It may cause a host of health problems such as weight loss, digestive issues, and a weakened immune system.
Dealing with a dog with separation anxiety can be emotionally challenging for us as owners too. There may be feelings of guilt, frustration, or helplessness.
There can also be practical implications. Dogs with separation anxiety may cause property damage or disturb neighbors with their excessive barking or howling. Owners might then have to shuffle around their schedules or lifestyle to accommodate their dog's needs.
How do I know if my dog has separation anxiety?
By now, you should hopefully understand a bit about what causes separation anxiety and the typical symptoms to look out for.
If you feel your dog might be suffering from separation anxiety, your vet should be the first port of call.
These professionals can rule out other medical issues that might cause similar symptoms, such as bladder infections in the case of inappropriate urination or dermatological issues in the case of excessive licking or chewing.
Once they have diagnosed it, they can suggest various treatment options for you.
Treatment Options for Separation Anxiety
Behaviour modifications are usually the core techniques of the treatment plans. Here are some ideas:
1. Counter conditioning: Associate your departure with positive experiences such as tasty treats or giving them their favorite toy. Over time, they may become more used to it and it won't feel like the end of the world for them!
2. Desensitization: The idea here is to gradually increase the duration that the dog is left one. You could start from just a few seconds, to minutes, then hours, gradually over weeks or months.
If you can help it, it's best not to leave your dog unaccompanied for more than 1-2 hours at a time (and certainly not more than 4 hours during the day), but sometimes we just don't have a choice.
This process of desensitisation should be done very slowly and carefully to avoid causing further distress.
3. Dog calming supplements such as this dog calming powder that you can add to food, or these natural dog calming tablets. These tend to work for the majority of dogs and are best if taken on a consistent basis.
4. Good exercise on a daily basis and regular mental stimulation are crucial as they can help tire the dog out and make them less anxious overall
5. Interactive toys or food puzzles, such as those trays where they have to slide the tiles to reveal the treats can help. The idea here is to keep the dog occupied and distracted during the owner's absence.
6. Animal behaviourist: There are several animal behaviourists out there that are professionals at managing a dog's separation anxiety. It may be worth talking to them and see what they can offer.
7. Playing your dogs relaxing music is another great option. There are now various channels on Youtube and Spotify, including our own, that has dedicated relaxing music for dogs with tempos and instruments that have been proven to show a reduction in stress levels in pets.
7. Pharmacological therapy: This really should be as last resort. A survey of veterinarians from 2018 found that 83% had prescribed antidepressants to dogs. This practice was literally unheard of over 10 years ago, so their use in dogs (as well as in humans to be honest) has skyrocketed in recent years. This is not necessarily a good thing as it can come with plenty of disadvantages.
How do I prevent separation anxiety?
Promoting independence from an early age can help prevent anxiety later in life. This can involve teaching a puppy to spend time alone in a crate or another part of the house and ensuring they're comfortable being alone both when the owner is home and away.
It also helps to establish daily routines for them, so keep their meal times regular and ensure they get plenty of exercise and playtime.
Proper socialization is also crucial. Introducing a puppy to a variety of people, animals, environments, and experiences can help them become a confident, well-adjusted adult dog.
These can be more difficult to achieve in a rescue dog or an adult dog if you haven't been the one who brought them up, so you may need to employ some of the treatment strategies and work on promoting healthy routines from now on instead.
Separation anxiety in dogs is a complex, multifaceted issue that poses significant challenges to dogs and their owners alike.
The difficulty for treatment will depend on how severe the symptoms are and how early on in the process you've recognised the problem and started addressing it.
The journey might be long and challenging, with ups and downs along the way. Yet, let's just remember that with patience, consistency, and the right support, you can help most dogs with separation anxiety to learn to feel safe and secure when left alone.