By Emily Hoppmann, DVM
Elgin Veterinary Hospital
Separation anxiety is a serious behavioral issue that can affect both dogs and cats, although it is much more commonly recognized in dogs. It is a disease that often requires long-term (and sometimes even life-long) therapy/management. This disease affects up to roughly 20% of dogs and usually begins to show signs around the same time a dog is becoming socially mature (between 1 to 3 years of age). Separation anxiety is defined as the physical or behavioral signs of distress that are only seen in the absence of a pet’s owner(s); however, there are cases where separation anxiety only occurs in the absence of the individual in the household who the pet views as the primary caregiver. This can be either a real absence, when an owner is away from the house, or a perceived absence, when the pet is not able to see or be near the owner. A perceived absence, for instance, would be when the owner is in a pet-restricted area of the house not visible to the animal or when the owner is outside while the pet is inside. The development of separation anxiety and other anxieties often do not have a clear cause and are simply due to the fact that many animals are genetically predisposed to developing anxiety disorders. However, the disease may manifest after a traumatic event that occurred around the pet in their owner’s absence. Unfortunately, for many pets, no traumatic event is ever needed to spark this disease. Some steps that you can take to help avoid separation anxiety as soon as you have a new pet include: kennel training your pet so he/she is comfortable in a kennel and views it as a safe place, rewarding signs of confidence when alone (for example, offering praise or a treat as you walk through the room your pet is independently playing in), not creating any additional attention when you come and go, and encouraging your pet to spend time in isolation (for example, having your pet eat and sleep in a room by him/herself).
The clinical signs that may be observed in a pet with separation anxiety include: vocalization, destruction, inappropriate elimination, excess salivation, self-induced trauma, and/or a heightened sense of arousal such as pacing, going from window to window, and/or an inability to relax. Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety are also more likely to have other types of anxieties, such as thunderstorm phobia or noise phobia. It is important to remember though that in cases of true separation anxiety, clinical signs are only present when the owner is not near or close to the pet, and often times signs of distress can begin immediately before the owner is about to leave the home. It is true that many pets suffer from more than one form of anxiety, so it is important to keep in mind that if any of the common clinical signs of distress are present all the time or most of the time— not just when the pet is left alone— it is more likely that the pet is suffering from a generalized anxiety or panic disorder and should be addressed differently than separation anxiety.
The most commonly observed clinical sign (and the most frustrating for owners to manage) is generally some form of destructive behavior. This behavior can range from minor forms, such as chewing on inappropriate items like shoes, to more serious forms of destruction like destroying drywall and/or other structural components of the house. It is very common for a pet suffering from separation anxiety to also vocalize a great deal after the owner departs and unless you have a neighbor who brings this to your attention or you are routinely videotaping your pet when you are absent (which is recommended to do intermittently throughout the life of your pet), you may have no idea that your dog is barking his/her head off in response to being left alone. Sometimes the signs of separation anxiety are seen as signs that may be the result of an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder-type behavior, such as licking or chewing excessively on themselves (commonly their sides, legs and paws). These types of behaviors can psychologically bring some level of comfort to an anxious pet; however, if these signs are seen they should be investigated further to be sure an underlying medical condition is not the culprit of the behavior.
Owners with pets that do suffer from separation anxiety are often unaware of the severity since many clinical signs of distress leave no physical trace. Typically, the most anxiety an animal experiences is within the first 15 minutes of an owner’s absence, but this varies with each individual, and can occur at some level during the entire period of the owner’s absence. The only way to properly diagnose separation anxiety is with a thorough history of a pet’s behavior when the owner is absent. This is where video recordings of your pet can become very useful. Getting into the habit of periodically videotaping your pet throughout his/her life when you leave the home can make a huge difference in early detection if your pet does develop separation anxiety or another behavioral disorder. There can be predisposing factors or triggers for separation anxiety, so knowing a detailed history of your pet’s experiences and exposures is important information for your veterinarian to know. Video recordings can not only provide a very accurate timeline of a developing anxiety disorder, but can be a valuable tool for you and your pet’s veterinarian during treatment since the recordings can show various distress signs and help identify particular stressors for your pet that can be helpful during the treatment therapy. Periodic videotape recordings allow the most effective treatment of each individual patient by learning the extent of particular distress signals, identifying particular stressors, and ensuring the correct pace of treatment. For example, every pet is different and it is key that the treatment recommended by your vet does not progress too quickly for the pet to handle and that the tools meant to help pets cope with their anxiety are in fact beneficial. Catching anxiety disorders as early as possible are critical to the long-term management of the disease and it is well known that the longer an anxiety disorder is left undiagnosed and untreated, the more difficult it becomes to manage and treat.
For many pet owners the most difficult and frustrating clinical sign to deal with is destructive behavior. Many owners immediately condemn their pet to a kennel or crate as punishment after they discover the damage. However, a crate should never be used as punishment in any situation and confining an animal that is comfortable being confined can make anxiety worse. Again, this is why pets should be introduced to a kennel at an early age and so they have time to become accustomed to it and view it as their “den” or safe place. If you do use a kennel while you are not home and start to notice your pet has signs of trauma such as broken teeth, unexplained cuts, and/or torn or broken toenails they are likely injuries due to their separation anxiety becoming compounded with the stress of being confined and trying to get out of the kennel/house/room. Using a kennel as a tool for confinement for when your pet is left unattended can be very helpful in cases of separation anxiety to limit destruction and to provide an area the pet views as comforting, but it can only be used if it does not worsen the anxiety.
When it comes to choosing and purchasing a kennel, most pets prefer a wire cage that allows them to see the surroundings as opposed to the crates that have solid walls (like crates used when an animal is cargo-boarded on a flight). It can also be helpful to cover a portion of the crate with a blanket so there is part of the crate that is darker and quieter, but the pet still has the option to look around. Some suggestions on how to introduce the kennel as a happy and rewarding environment include feeding your pet in the crate, having toys that your pet loves to play with that are only available when they are calm in their crate, and leaving the door open at all times (when it is not being used for confinement) so that your pet can enter and leave the crate on their own terms. By training your pet early on in their development to stay in a kennel when you are away from the house, when he/she is going to bed for the night, and during times when you need him/her to be separated from certain situations— such as company that is scared of dogs— the kennel will become a place that your dog feels safe and secure, and is viewed as a normal part of his/her routine. You never want to use the crate as a place for punishment so you need to have a separate area that you can place your pet for “time out”. You also never want to introduce it as a training tool while your pet is in an anxious state or displaying any signs of distress due to the kennel. If your pet views the crate as a negative place, you are more likely to see secondary injuries occur as a result of your pet trying to escape from the kennel to find a safer environment and you will have a much more difficult time re-training the way your pet views the crate and being able to use it as part of therapy.
The goal of treatment for separation anxiety is to decrease the anxiety felt by your pet so that he/she no longer responds to being left alone with any of the signs of distress, and is both calm and happy even when you are not present. One important thing to remember is that in order to obtain the results of a calm and relaxed dog, it is going to take time, a fair amount of patience, and it may involve life-long adjustments on both your side and your pet’s. Anxiety disorders are not something that can be quickly fixed and can often relapse even after you have gotten your pet to a point where he/she is relaxed with or without you present. Early intervention and consistency are keys to the success of treatment. Behavioral modification and the use of medications that help your pet to have less anxiety overall are both pillars of therapy.
One common aid in long-term behavioral therapy includes teaching dogs to relax while making eye contact with owners in any situation when the dog shows signs of anxiety. In order for this to be successful owners must know what to look for in an anxious dog. These signs include: facial cues (Are the ears upright or held flat back on the head?), body postures (Is the dog standing in a regular position with the tail up? Is he/she hunching down towards the floor?), pupil size and shape (Are the eyes normal in size or extremely dilated?), and changes in respiration (Is the dog breathing normally or distressed and panting excessively?). If any of the signs of anxiety can be clearly recognized, you should immediately remove the pet from the stressful situation until they relax while constantly keeping their attention and eye contact. For example, if your pet becomes anxious when other pets or people are walking toward him/her on a walk, you should turn and walk away until the dog starts to relax while maintaining their attention and good eye contact. And remember, pets that are undergoing behavioral intervention for an anxiety disorder should never be exposed to an unnecessary circumstance that is likely to cause distress, especially during training sessions.
Most of the time behavioral modification alone is not enough to successful get a handle on separation anxiety and medications prescribed by your veterinarian are necessary. The types of medications used with pets suffering from anxiety disorders help not only to decrease distress, but also allow the animal to more easily develop new pathways in the brain that create a healthier way to deal with different situations and allow behavior modification to be more successful. It is important to keep in mind when using anxiety relieving medications that it can take up to several months to reach full effect. In the meantime, it is important to not put your pet in situations where he/she will experience any separation anxiety. This can be one of the hardest things for owners when trying to treat separation anxiety since almost all people do have to leave the house for school, work, or other normal day-to-day activities – which puts your pet in a situation where he/she will experience distress. It is best to use a pet sitter, doggie daycare, day boarding at your veterinary clinic, or taking your pet with you if possible or leaving them with a friend until the medications can fully take effect and alleviate the amount of anxiety your pet feels. There are a variety of drugs that may be helpful in situations of separation anxiety. Sometimes it can be helpful to fast-acting anxiety medications just during the period it takes for the long-term medications to reach maximum efficacy. Scheduling an appointment with your veterinarian as soon as you recognize that your pet is experiencing signs of separation anxiety is a very important step towards starting treatment and breaking the cycle of anxiety. Your veterinarian can decide the best course of medical and behavioral intervention for your pet’s individual needs. It is important to keep in mind that the use of drugs without behavior modification will not provide a solution to any behavioral problem, especially separation anxiety.
There are many common activities that we as pet owners do on a routine basis that can make separation from us more difficult for our pets— even for pets that do not have an anxiety disorder. There are many preemptive measures that you can easily change to help deter a pet from becoming anxious or developing anxiety disorders. Pets should always feel confident being left alone and should enjoy their own independent time away from us. This means that any behavior that reinforces an unnatural dependency between the pet and the owner should be stopped. Some ways that pet owners unknowingly reinforce dependency include allowing them on the furniture, allowing them to sleep in the bed with them, and rewarding them if they follow them from room to room with praise, petting, or treats. In order to teach a pet to become more independent, it is critical to have separate areas that are “people only”, such as on the furniture or in the kitchen, and to not reward a pet for “clingy” behavior. It is equally important to establish comfortable places around the house and encourage pets to learn to stay and relax in those places regardless of where the people in the home are located. If you notice that it is one individual in the house that the pet appears most bonded to, the major responsibilities for that pet (such as feeding, walking, medicating, etc.) should be done by other members of the household. This can help teach the pet that it is not necessary to be overly dependent of one owner in order to be “rewarded” with food or a walk outside. Another easy behavior to change (or preferably never start!) is praising the pet when leaving and returning to the home. Making sure that there is no fanfare associated with leaving or returning home can be very helpful in deterring and treating separation anxiety. That means not paying any extra attention to your pet before leaving the house and only acknowledging your pet once he/she is showing calm behavior upon returning home. Since the most anxiety occurs during the first 15 minutes after departure, finding a novel toy or a toy that will occupy your pet’s mind during this initial time after you depart can be helpful. I highly recommend using interactive toys that dispense kibble or a Kong™ toy with frozen low-sodium chicken broth or low fat cheese in the center.
In pets that are exhibiting signs of separation anxiety, it can be very helpful to start desensitizing them to the cues that you are getting ready to depart since the departure is the beginning of their anxious cycle. You should first identify the stressful cues by paying close attention to what your routine is when you get ready to depart. Watch closely for subtle indications that your pet is feeling distressed during any part of this routine. If you always grab your keys, purse, or wallet before leaving the house these become cues that your pet then perceives as the beginning of your departure, thus inciting their anxiousness. One way to help your pet to not react to these cues is to start to do them randomly throughout the day when you are not leaving the house. For example, if your routine ends with you grabbing your keys before you head out the door, start grabbing your keys randomly throughout the day when you are not planning on leaving, but you are simply going to the other room to watch television or cook dinner. The more often a cue occurs without a departure, the less significance it carries to the pet.
You should always reward calm behavior that your pet displays and never punish your pet for showing anxious behavior since this is likely to increase distress. For instance, if your pet is playing with a toy in a different room or relaxing on his/her bed or in his/her crate, you want to reward this behavior with calm, quiet praise and give the occasional low-calorie treat (for example, baby carrots, plain cheerios, or pieces of your pet’s kibble). Keep in mind that you always should speak to an anxious pet in a calm and quiet voice, even when offering praise, since pets pick up on human feelings and cues. The more calm you remain in situations that causes your pet stress or their energy level to peak, the more calm your pet will act since they like to mimic and please their “pack leader”.
Separation anxiety can be a frustrating disease, but if you are able to understand the actions or items that trigger your pet’s anxiety and actively work with your pet to decrease his/her anxiety, you will be on a good path towards modifying negative behaviors and improving his/her separation anxiety. The key things to remember are to remain patient and to trust that you can help your pet reach a calm and confident state of mind through consistent training and/or anxiety medications. If you are confident throughout their therapy, they will be confident as well. Remember to constantly reward calm behavior and continue to decrease anxious situations as much as possible to avoid the chance of relapse. Make sure to utilize video recording while you are away so you can be sure that your pet’s treatment is benefiting them. Do your best to desensitize your pet to departure cues and distract them from your departure by occupying them with interactive toys or low-calorie treats. If your pet isn’t properly kennel trained, start getting him/her used to being kenneled and help them to become more independent while you are present. Again, it is extremely important to begin rewarding any relaxed independent behavior from a young age in order to decrease the likelihood of a pet developing separation anxiety. However, if a pet does develop separation anxiety addressing it slowly with both behavioral modification training and medications can help your pet to live a comfortable and stress-free life, and hopefully even be able to eventually live medication free as well. It may take a great deal of time and patience, but the rewards make the challenge totally worth it!