Written By: Jennifer Dempsey DVM
Persistent howling, crying, and pacing. There are not many things worse than knowing that your four-legged family member is losing their mind as soon as you step out the front door. Yet as a dog owner, what can you do? We understand that you have to go to work or run out to the grocery store (let alone have a social life). However, it can become a constant chore when dealing with the agony of leaving behind a dog with separation anxiety. However, we're here to tell you that there is hope for easing separation anxiety in dogs. It begins with fully understanding the anxiety and what provokes it. Let's get started.
What is Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Perhaps the largest complaint of pet owners (and their neighbors) is their dog misbehaving in a destructive way when their owner leaves. This behavior can include anything from howling, chewing, digging, house soiling, urination, trying to escape, etc. It can cause major problems for dog owners who live in apartment complexes where the howling disrupts others.
While these behaviors are often a sign that your dog might benefit from more obedience training, they can also be signs that your pup is in distress.
When your dog's howling, whining, chewing, digging, and other destructive behavior is accompanied by drooling or anxious behavior when you're getting ready to leave the house, it's likely that your dog may be suffering from separation anxiety.
Just like so many humans (over 40 million Americans each year to be exact), dogs also experience anxiety. Separation anxiety is, in fact, an anxiety disorder. As many as 1 out of 6 dogs may suffer from some form of this disorder. Pets with single owners are also 2.5 times more likely than pets living with several people to have signs of separation anxiety. Senior pets are also more likely to develop separation anxiety as cognitive changes occur with the aging process.
Separation anxiety in dogs can occur when the owner leaves them alone, even for a very short period of time. Dogs are pack animals. Therefore, given the dog's instinctual nature, many don't do well when left by themselves, thus inducing the anxious behavior. While disheartening, it can also leave owners feeling incredibly frustrated.
However, we're here to tell you that you're not alone. In fact, there are so many owners dealing with pups who have separation distress that there are now animal behaviorist experts who are hired solely to help handle the issue. There are also anti-anxiety medication options that your veterinarian may recommend for severe cases. Dogs with mild cases may benefit from more natural options. Additionally, there are several other ways to help manage separation anxiety in dogs but first, owners need to understand the underlying causes of the problem at hand.
Dog Separation Anxiety Causes
There are several underlying causes that are directly linked to separation anxiety in dogs. If your pup begins having a nervous breakdown when they sense your imminent departure, consider whether the following changes have recently happened in your home.
Change in Household Membership
If you are a dog owner, then you know first hand just how sensitive our furry companions can be. They bond with members of the family and individuals who they see on a regular basis. Therefore, a death of a family member or circumstances such as divorce can devastate your pup and lead to symptoms of separation anxiety.
Owners may not fully realize the extent to which "people problems" can also affect their dog's life. The human-animal bond is often incredibly strong. Even something as simple as a roommate moving out can cause your pup to constantly question if you're going to leave and not come back. It truly is heartbreaking when you think about it.
Change in Schedule
Dogs, like most humans, are creatures of habit. We all like our schedules and sticking to them. It keeps us consistent and productive. Dogs are really not much different. Therefore, when there are changes in the typical day-to-day schedule, it can lead to symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs.
Separation anxiety in dogs commonly goes hand in hand with abandonment. As you can imagine, a dog that has been in and out of shelters will likely have separation anxiety due to the fear that their owner won't return. The absence of the owner, long-term or short-term can be enough to incite full-on panic.
Lack of Integration into Household
Another cause of separation anxiety in dogs is improper integration into the household. When a new dog is brought home for the first time, owners may think it's best to confine them to certain parts of the house or leave them in a crate for long periods at a time. While we understand that you don't want your house torn up by your new pup, understand that this lack of integration can lead to signs of separation anxiety.
Finally, a major cause of separation anxiety in dogs is moving. Moving homes ties into a change in schedule as well as potentially a lack of proper integration. We understand how stressful moving can be for a pet owner. We want to stress that it can be equally stressful for your pup. Dogs are incredibly sensitive creatures. If you are in the process of moving, it is likely that your dog is not only sensing your stress and anxiety, but also experiencing their own since they have no way of knowing what is going on. Double the stress typically equates to separation anxiety.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Next, dog owners should be aware of the signs of separation anxiety. There are behavioral issues and other conditions that share similar symptoms to separation anxiety in dogs so it is important to be able to distinguish them.
Urinating and Defecating
In some cases, house soiling (urinating and defecating) are signs that your dog is experiencing separation anxiety. However, if your dog urinates and/or defecates while you are home, chances are they could benefit from obedience training and the actions are not caused by separation anxiety.
Barking and Howling
Barking and howling are two signs of separation anxiety. If you live in an apartment complex, you may be made aware of the situation by an unenthused neighbor. The barking and howling is persistent and doesn't seem to be provoked by anything other than being left alone.
Chewing, Digging, Destruction
Another sign of separation anxiety is a destruction of the house from chewing, digging, scratching door frames, tearing up carpet, etc. This anxious behavior can also result in broken teeth, scraped paws, and damaged nails. Again, when the owner is home, these behaviors do not occur. Therefore, if your dog is acting like a madman in your presence, chances are, it's not due to separation anxiety.
Attempting to escape is another tell-tale sign of separation anxiety in dogs. These escape attempts also commonly result in broken teeth, injured paws, and damaged nails. The dog may be attempting to escape a small area in which they are confined, such as a crate, or escape a giant room through a window or door. Regardless of where they are attempting to escape from, the behavior doesn't occur in the owner's presence.
Whether its walking from one side of the room to the other or walking in circles, pacing is a common sign of separation anxiety. Again, the way to tell whether it is or is not a symptom of separation anxiety is the fact that is doesn't occur when their owner is home.
Coprophagia (Eating Feces)
Additionally, coprophagia (or eating their own poop) is another sign that your dog may be experiencing separation anxiety. This is not to be confused with puppies who eat their own poop out of potential nutrient deficiencies.
Excessive Salivation and Licking
Finally, excessive drooling and licking are both signs of separation anxiety in dogs. If you come home to find your dog is wet in certain areas, chances are they have been licking excessively.
Conditions Commonly Mistaken for Separation Anxiety in Dogs
There are a handful of conditions that are commonly thought to be separation anxiety but are, in fact, different issues that result in similar symptoms. It is important for dog owners to recognize the differences between these conditions.
Simulated Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Dogs love attention, this isn't new information. However, what pet owners may not realize is how smart their four-legged friend is. Some dogs will go to great lengths to get the attention they want, even if that means behaving badly.
Simulated separation anxiety in dogs has all of the same symptoms of separation anxiety. The major difference is its motivation. Simulated separation anxiety is a learned attention-seeking behavior. It develops from a substantial lack of leadership, a lack of self-control, and a constant need for attention. Ultimately, the dog is acting out and behaving in a way that they know will guarantee a response from their owner.
Isolation anxiety closely resembles separation anxiety with one distinct difference. With separation anxiety, the anxiety occurs when one specific person (dog's owner) is absent. With isolation anxiety, distress occurs when the dog is left alone but as long as someone is there, they will be just fine. Isolation anxiety can be an easier fix by exploring ideas such as hiring a dog walker or introducing your pup to a doggy daycare.
There are certain medications that may cause your dog to have many more "accidents" than usual. Before assuming that your pup is having separation anxiety, be sure to consider if any medications they are taking might be behind the unwanted changes you're finding.
Other Behavior Problems to Rule Out
Additionally, before concluding that your dog is experiencing separation anxiety, you'll want to rule out the following behavioral issues.
Submissive or Excitement Urination
Some dogs urinate due to overstimulation. It can occur when you get home after a long day out of the house or even when they are being reprimanded. This urination is not a sign of separation anxiety as it typically occurs in the dog owner's presence.
Incomplete House Training
If Fido hasn't been properly house trained then it shouldn't really come as a surprise that you're coming home to accidents. In these cases, house soiling is not caused by separation anxiety but simply due to incomplete house training.
Dogs say what is theirs through what is referred to as territorial marking (also known as marking their scent). You'll recognize territorial marking because it will be a small amount of urine often in several areas of the house (can be on furniture, clothing, floors, etc). Again, this is not separation anxiety but rather your dog stating what belongs to them.
Dogs, like their owners, crave mental stimulation. If your dog is left on their own for periods of time then they will find a way to entertain themselves. Whether that's a competition with the neighbor's dog as to who can howl the loudest or a contest with themselves to see how quickly they can chew through that new West Elm coffee table. Your dog may be acting out simply due to boredom, not to an underlying condition such as separation anxiety. Luckily, boredom can be an easy fix and ultimately lies in the hands of the owner.
It is common for puppies to engage in destructive activities while their owners are away. In order to avoid this, pet parents may want to consider crate training (after the puppy is properly integrated into the household). Crate training should be done very specifically as it can make it or break it for a new puppy. The crate should be looked at as a place of safety and comfort, not as punishment. Furthermore, puppy behavioral issues are much easier to change than trying to teach an older dog. If you see signs of misbehavior, it's best to nip it in the bud straight away with obedience training.
Unfamiliar Sights & Sounds
Unfamiliar sights and sounds can lead to excessive barking and howling. These bouts of vocalized anxiety are often caused by the fear of the unknown, such as the mailman or a siren, not by separation anxiety.
How To Calm an Anxious Dog
Now that we have that covered, if you feel that you have an anxious dog on your hands, you're probably wondering how to help them cope (and how to stop coming home to a destroyed house).
One of the first things that we want to encourage is mental stimulation. As we mentioned, dogs crave stimulation, both mental and physical. No dog, no matter how calm or energetic, no matter whether they are young or old, NO DOG does well when confined to a crate or small space for hours on end.
Before you leave for work, set aside extra time for exercise before your departure. We know it will take some adjusting on the pet owner's part, but trust us, waking up a bit earlier than usual is worth the major results that you will likely find. Experts recommend making sure that you give your pup at least 20 minutes to calm down after your morning exercise before you leave so that they don't become overstimulated with all the activity going on.
Also consider giving a special treat or a toy stuffed with that favorite treat to your dog when you leave. Interactive toys such as food puzzles can provide mental stimulation and prevent boredom. You can also leave small piles of kibble around the house to have them search for their meal while you are gone. Plenty of safe chew toys also encourages licking and chewing, which can have a calming effect on dogs.
Obedience Training & Discipline
If you have a sneaky hunch that your pup would benefit from some additional obedience training, chances are, you're right. Instilling certain behavioral values from a young age can make a world of difference in your dog.
Calming Actions & Positive Reinforcement
Most dogs react well to positive reinforcement. For starters, pet owners should make their departure and their arrival something that is no big deal. As much as you may want to shower your baby with hugs and kisses and "I'll miss yous," they don't exactly understand what this means other than it's a lot of stimulation, followed by you leaving. The extreme high and extreme low can ultimately (and quickly) lead to separation anxiety. Pet owners may also want to implement a little positive reinforcement before leaving. Perhaps before your departure, slip Fido their favorite treat to seal the deal and make your absence not so depressing.
NEVER punish your dog for any behaviors associated with separation anxiety. It can actually make your pup more upset and cause the problem to get worse.
Dog Anxiety Medication
There are many supplements currently on the market for dogs with mild cases of separation anxiety. Supplements may include pheromone collars or diffusers, calming treats, diets, and probiotics.
Alpha-casozepine is a derivative of a protein in cow’s milk and has a calming effect on the brain.
L-theanine, which is a component of green tea plants, increases serotonin in the brain.
Additionally, the amino acid L-tryptophan is also a precursor for the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is essential in the regulation of mood and anxiety.
In severe cases, your veterinary behaviorist may recommend treatment in the form of an anti-anxiety drug. There are currently only two FDA-approved drugs for separation anxiety in dogs. These medications may take up to 4 to 6 weeks to see the full effects and must be weaned off slowly. Anti-anxiety medications are most effective when paired with a behavioral modification program that includes desensitization and counter-conditioning.
Separation Anxiety in Dogs: A Final Thought
At the end of the day, we know that you want what's best for your furry companion.
We understand because here at Honest Paws, we are also pet owners and know how hard it can be when you know there's something wrong but don't know exactly how to fix it.
Using a combination of the strategies discussed in this article, however, you can help your four-legged friend adjust to separation so that they're calm and at peace whenever you're away from home, allowing them to be happier and healthier.