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Assessing Canine Separation Anxiety

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Canine separation anxiety (SA) is a behavioral disorder marked by a dog's excessive anxiety when left alone. It is usually manifested as destruction of the owner's property, often vain attempts to escape, and other behaviors that may be injurious to the dog or annoying to people sharing the dog's environment. It is important to note that, with separation anxiety, these behaviors occur only in the owner's absence. The dog is not attempting to "get even" with his owners for leaving him; he is truly distressed at being left alone.

The condition can be treated through behavioral modification techniques and medication. However, the veterinarian will want to make sure the animal suffers from separation anxiety, not simply from boredom, before recommending a specific course of therapy, particularly if the treatment includes drugs. To this end, the veterinarian may ask the dog's owner to fill out a questionnaire designed to help him or her assess whether a dog truly does suffer from separation anxiety.

What Will an Assessment of Canine Separation Anxiety Reveal?

Separation anxiety is considered to be a syndrome of pathological attachment of a dog to its caregivers. It usually presents as a constellation of behaviors, a syndrome, not just as one or two isolated behaviors. Correctly diagnosing separation anxiety requires veterinarians to consider the various behaviors expressed and to determine whether they fit a pattern. A number of other conditions that may be confused with separation anxiety must be ruled out before a diagnosis of separation anxiety can be confirmed.

How is an Assessment for Separation Anxiety Performed?

Owners fill out a questionnaire that encompasses factors such as the dog's background (known to influence the development of separation anxiety), its attachment to them, pre-departure and post-departure behaviors, and greeting behavior. The questionnaire should be filled out at the time of a dog's first veterinary visit for early detection of the syndrome. That way, corrective measures can be taken before the condition exacerbates.

In addition, all owners of newly acquired dogs should be asked to complete the questionnaire to detect separation anxiety so that, if necessary, they can be advised on about "independence training." Owners of any dogs exhibiting behavior problems when their owner is away from home should be asked to complete the questionnaire so that a definitive diagnosis can be made.

Owners may be asked to complete a questionnaire similar to the one below, checking yes, no, or don't know to the questions relating to the dog's history (background). While not all dogs with separation anxiety have had a disturbed background, many have, so positive answers in this section provide an element of suspicion that SA is involved. Questions under the heading "behavior" relate to the dog's attachment level, pre- and post-departure cues, behavior in the owner's absence, and greeting behavior. Here, affirmative responses may be qualified as mild, moderate or severe. Scoring the behaviors (see below) gives an indication of the severity of the condition.

Note: The following sample of questions and interpretation sections are meant for information only. Any assessment should be done under the supervision and guidance of a veterinarian. Owners should not attempt to diagnose separation anxiety themselves.

History

  • Did you acquire your dog after 3 months of age?
  • Did you acquire your dog at 5 weeks of age or less?        
  • Was your puppy an orphan or hand raised?
  • Was your dog acquired from a shelter, pound, or pet shop?
  • Has your dog had multiple owners during his/her life?

    Behavior

  • Does your dog follow you around the house?
  • Does your dog become anxious at the sound of car keys or when you put on your coat or shoes to go out?
  • Does your dog exhibit other problem behaviors as you prepare to leave?
  • Does your dog bark or whine excessively within 30 minutes of your departure?
  • After you leave does your dog act depressed?
  • After you leave does your dog have a loss of appetite?        
  • Does your dog destroy property only when you are away?        
  • Does your dog urinate or defecate in your home only when you are away?        
  • Does your dog regularly have diarrhea, vomit, or lick excessively in your absence?        
  • Does your dog exhibit an excessive greeting on your return (jumping, hyperactivity, barking, more than 2-3 minutes)?

    Interpretation

  • Affirmative answers to 5 out of 10 questions in the behavioral section indicates separation anxiety.

  • Affirmative answers to any of the historical questions plus 4 out of 10 affirmative answers in the behavioral section of the questionnaire is grounds for a diagnosis of separation anxiety.

  • Affirmative responses to 3 of 10 behavioral questions, as long as these include hyper-attachment, destructive behavior, vocalization, or elimination behavior.

  • Affirmative answers to any 3 questions, including one indicating a dysfunctional background, indicates a sub-threshhold level of affliction. I.e. the disorder is present to an extent but is not definitively diagnosable.

  • Affirmative answers to less than 3 questions usually rules out separation anxiety.

  • For scoring, affirmative answers in any area of the history section scores 1 point (maximum score in this category). Responses to the behavioral questions are scored: Does not occur = 0, mild = 1, moderate = 2, severe = 3. A dog diagnosable with separation anxiety will thus have a minimum score of 5 points (5 mild expressions of behavioral anomaly in the behavioral section, or a dysfunctional history plus 4 affirmative answers in the behavioral section). Alternatively, a score of 4 points total, comprising the specific behaviors indicted above could be considered diagnostic. At the other end of the scale, the most severe case of separation anxiety possible would have a score of 30 on the behavioral questions (plus an additional 1 point if the dog had a dysfunctional history, as well).         

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