Missing ones’ social contacts is a normal behaviour. It is not unusual or unexpected for our pets to experience a short duration of anxiety under certain circumstances, such as a visit to the veterinarian or when exposed to a new environment. If a pet is left home alone and exhibits excessive anxiety or distress during absence of their favourite people, the condition becomes medical and is called separation anxiety.
Signs may manifest even if the person or people of attachment are somewhere else on the property; it need only be a perceived departure by the dog. Separation anxiety is the most frequently experienced anxiety in dogs. Dogs suffering from separation anxiety can bark, howl, whine, eliminate, destroy, pace, or pant. Vocalization can start within three to four minutes and destructive behaviour within seven to eight minutes of owner departure.
Signs of separation anxiety can also include salivation, shaking, tucked tail, pulled back ears, or complete inhibition. Diagnosis is confirmed by filming the dog during the first 60 minutes post-departure on a work day and on a day off (when the departure schedule is more unpredictable). Filming your dog during your absence is essential if you come home to rumpled throw rugs, messes, and chewed wood, socks and blankets. Frequently, although not always, packing a suitcase and activating a sound such as zippers, car, key chain noises, and rituals of human goodbyes can act as triggers for the first behavioural changes.
This is a complex problem and may result from a combination of factors. Interplay of genetic predisposition, fear, phobias, anxiety disorders, incomplete socialization and weaning, a traumatic event during owner absence, constant owner presence that changes to greater absence, and reduced activity or stimulation may contribute to the condition.
Your veterinarian should be consulted in all cases of separation anxiety. Medication is always required for confirmed cases of separation anxiety. Your veterinarian will want to gather a thorough medical and behavioural history, as well as perform a thorough physical examination to ensure all possible physical causes for behaviour changes are considered. Referral to a behavioural specialist may occur at the start of care, when the signs of destruction produce risk for the pet (the dog has panic attacks), or if problems resolving the anxiety are resistant to management. It can take months (12-36) of medication to effectively treat this anxiety disorder.
Punishment must be absolutely avoided. A daycare or pet sitter may be needed during the behaviour transition. Separation anxiety is generally treated with a combination of basic behavioural modification techniques (commanding the dog to sit prior to any positive or neutral interaction with the owner) and anti-anxiety medication. Filming the dog over the course of the pharmacological treatment allows both the owner and veterinarian to assess progress. When the dog is consistently able to relax and rest/sleep during owner absence, the objective is attained. These dogs may even groom or play for short periods during owner absence. Once the dog has habituated to being alone, the medication can be weaned very gradually. Weaning should not be attempted too soon during the treatment program nor performed too rapidly, as some dogs may relapse and in some exceptions some dogs may require life-long medication.
Kathleen Cavanagh, BSc DVM MET
Consulting Online Editor CVMA
Diane Frank DVM, DACVB
Consulting Specialist Editor