The bond between people and their dogs is one of the most beautiful relationships between two species on this planet. But that bond can also make it difficult for a dog to cope during times of separation. Many dogs destroy, vocalise, urinate inside the home or otherwise act out when left alone or when a favourite person departs.
Separation anxiety is a serious disorder that is often misunderstood, and the term may be misapplied to any dog whose behaviour changes when left alone. Separation anxiety is a state of panic that involves very specific brain chemistry, which differentiates it from a related behaviour pattern: separation distress. Separation distress may cause a dog to dig holes in the garden or bark excessively when left alone, but this is not due to anxiety or panic. It may result from boredom, frustration or even anger – but it is not anxiety in the clinical sense. What distinguishes the two is the pattern of behaviour displayed, and severity, with separation anxiety being far more extreme.
Separation anxiety is indicated by certain features. The dog becomes agitated when his owner starts their departure routine. He may pant, become restless, salivate, shiver or hide.
The associated behaviour starts soon after the person has left, usually peaking within the first hour of departure. Recording equipment is often used to assess separation anxiety. If the dog only starts the concerning behaviour a few hours after being left alone, it is less likely to be anxiety-based.
The behaviour often occurs at the point of departure. For example, I once worked with a dog whose owners would arrive home to find a huge puddle of saliva at their front door, as well as new holes chewed in the door.
Providing the dog with food or toys isn’t effective. The owner may arrive home to find that their dog has not eaten the treats left out for him, or the new toy is still in the same position. These dogs are simply too anxious to enjoy such activities, and this can be an effective means of testing for anxiety. Leaving safe and interesting activities often works with a bored or frustrated dog.
In severe cases, dogs may cause themselves injury. They may chew at security gates until their gums bleed; they may scratch doors until their nails are ripped out. I have seen dogs cause themselves serious injury while attempting to escape over wire fences or squeeze through the gaps in burglar bars.
Separation anxiety can be caused by a variety of factors. It is common in puppies, understandably so as they are babies who have left the security and comfort of their mom and siblings. It takes puppies a while to bond and feel safe with their new families: they should not be left alone when whining or crying.
Change in circumstances
All puppies should be taught to be left alone by associating departures with yummy snacks and toys, while very gradually increasing the amount of time they spend on their own. Any change in circumstances can trigger separation anxiety. Moving to a new home, being adopted from a shelter, or losing a companion animal or person are all commonly related to raised anxiety levels. Being kennelled for a period of time is a common cause. A change in the owner’s routines, for example going from working at home to an office job, is a significant factor. Dogs who suffered through a difficult illness or injury may also be more prone, as well as senior dogs who may be struggling with the mental consequences of ageing. In some cases, there is no apparent cause or trigger. Any dog can develop separation anxiety at any stage in his life, and some dogs will pass through their entire lives being quite happy when left alone – there is unfortunately little means of predicting which dogs may develop the disorder.
Addressing the condition
As this condition can cause extreme suffering for a dog, it is essential to address it. No dog should ever be punished or scolded for any behaviours performed in the owner’s absence: firstly, the dog will not associate the scolding with his behaviour as dogs only make immediate associations; secondly, it will only serve to raise the dog’s stress levels and make him feel even less safe than he already does.
The ‘guilty look’ is a complete farce, as is the idea of dogs being spiteful, and it’s about time that those notions are left in the past – there is no evidence that dogs comprehend spite or guilt. That ‘look’ is fear. Dogs do not urinate inside or bark non-stop because they want to. These behaviours are coping mechanisms or signs of anxiety; these dogs need help, not punishment.
Separation anxiety is difficult, if not impossible, to address without the diagnosis and assistance of a qualified behaviourist and veterinarian working together. Dogs displaying such anxiety often require medication as a first step in managing their anxiety, and to make it easier for them to learn the appropriate coping skills. Fortunately, there are some amazing medications currently available for treating anxious dogs. Medication is only one aspect though, and these dogs also need to learn the skills that will allow them to manage being alone – and that is where a qualified behaviourist comes in. It can be a long and difficult process to help a dog with separation anxiety, but it is well worth putting in the effort to ease a dog’s suffering.
Separation anxiety in cats
Don’t forget about the other fluffies who share our homes: cats. Cats can also suffer from separation anxiety. It presents similarly in that the cat will display excessive meowing, destructive behaviour or changes in toileting behaviour when left alone. Treatment is also similar, and is best advised by a qualified cat behaviourist. Look out for the article on separation anxiety in cats in a future edition of Animaltalk.