Separation Anxiety

There’s a book and many websites devoted to dog-shaming pictures. Many of these are hilarious, but the behavior of the dogs is often rooted in anxiety, which is definitely not funny to the dog.

Dogs and cats are creatures of habit, and they like routine. Having owners home more often during the pandemic was initially tough on the pets, but dogs became accustomed to having their owners around more. Many people adopted new pets, and these animals never knew a time when their humans weren’t around all day. But as owners started going back to work and spending more time away from home, anxious behaviors started showing up or recurred.

Separation anxiety is not boredom. It’s akin to a person having a panic attack. Some signs of separation anxiety in dogs can include urinating or defecating in the house when left alone; destruction of furniture, doors, cages, floors, etc.; and vocalization. These dogs are often very attached to the owner and follow them around the house. The difficulty is that these behaviors can occur due to other things: boredom, incomplete house training, underlying bladder infection, or other anxieties.

Some signs of separation anxiety are more subtle. Anxiety suppresses the appetite, so dogs that only eat when the owner is home may have covert separation anxiety. An anxious dog may pace and pant all day, so the owner might notice excessive thirst when they get home. Some dogs will try to block an owner’s departure, potentially with aggression.

Cats can have covert separation anxiety too. The primary behavior is urination outside the litter box. Defecation, destruction, and vocalization are much less common. I heard of one dog that would physically try to keep the owners from leaving the house, actually attacking their feet. They thought the dog had separation anxiety and set up a video camera to help with the diagnosis. What they found was that it was the cat that had the anxiety! As soon as the owner left, the cat would start yowling for the entire day, which made the dog try to stop the owner from leaving.

If you suspect your dog has separation anxiety, getting videos is very important for the diagnosis. You want a video of a routine departure as well as a nonroutine departure. This would be coming home at the end of the day then going back out to dinner. Some pets may be fine for a regular leaving, but being left again can increase the anxiety. “Velcro” dogs may just have hyperattachment and not separation anxiety, which is treated differently. Some dogs have confinement anxiety, and will be destructive if caged. If they don’t have separation anxiety, then leaving them loose in the house will be the cure.

Dogs with separation anxiety often have other phobias, such as noise, thunderstorms, or car travel. Pain can worsen anxiety, so if you have an older dog that normally does okay at home or during thunderstorms and suddenly has signs of anxiety, it could be arthritis.

Once you have a diagnosis, there are a number of ways to help your dog. Dr. Debra Horowitz, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, helped develop the BOND program.

B is for Be Positive. Focus on rewarding positive behaviors. Don’t reprimand or punish; ignore the negative behaviors. Remember that your dog is not being bad or spiteful; they’re panicked and can’t help it!

O is for Only Reward Calm behavior. Ignore your dog when it’s overly excited, and remember, if you get excited, your dog will too. So make homecomings quiet and subdued and wait for your dog to settle down before giving it attention. Look for opportunities to spend relaxed time with your dog.

N is for No More Drama. Don’t tell your dog how sorry you are to be leaving. Give your dog something special, like a treat or toy, 30 minutes prior to leaving. Make your departure the best part of their day. It’s also helpful to desensitize your dog to your leaving routine. A few times a week, get your keys and purse like you’re going to leave, then go back to your previous activity.

D is for Develop Your Dog’s Independence. Provide a safe place for your dog to be calm when you’re gone and teach your dog to stay there for increased periods of time when you’re home to help decrease his distance from you. This might require starting at just five seconds and working up.

There are a variety of antianxiety medications that your veterinarian can prescribe to help. Some dogs need daily Reconcile (fluoxetine specifically for dogs) as well as other medications to give prior to departures. Some dogs benefit from wearing some type of anxiety wrap, like a ThunderShirt. Adaptil is a calming pheromone produced by mother dogs. This is particularly helpful for anxious puppies, but can affect any-age dog. There are nutraceuticals and a special probiotic that can also be part of the treatment. Employing the help of a certified separation anxiety trainer or a veterinary behaviorist may be needed too.

What doesn’t help? Punishment. You may feel better, but it will only heighten your dog’s anxiety when you return home. That guilty look you think you see? That isn’t guilt, but rather an appeasement gesture. Your dog doesn’t know what they did wrong, but knows you’re angry or expects punishment when you get home. These gestures include yawning, turning the head away, creeping away with ears back, or standing crouched with the tail tucked.

Getting a second dog is also not very helpful. Separation anxiety is about not being with their human and probably won’t be improved with another dog around.

Having your dog diagnosed and treated is the best thing you can do. Ignoring the behavior or dog shaming won’t help. These dogs usually get worse without treatment. So if you’re worried about your pet, please reach out to your veterinarian for help.

Lori Scarlett, DVM, is the owner and veterinarian at Four Lakes Veterinary Clinic. For more information, visit fourlakesvet.com .

Photograph by Brenda Eckhardt