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Separation Anxiety in Dogs

By: Dr. Alice Moon-Fanelli

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When an owner leaves for work or school, her heart may break a little at the thought of leaving the loyal, beloved dog at home. To be sure, the dog will miss the owner, and will be overjoyed upon her return. But when partings become so painful that the dog gets frantic, destructive and/or extremely vocal, a behavioral problem exists. Some dogs have what is referred to as separation anxiety. These dogs are so morbidly attached to people that they literally cannot tolerate being left alone.

Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety may exhibit destructive behavior, relieve themselves in the home (even if otherwise housebroken), howl or whine, refuse to eat, and even vomit or salivate when left alone.

The destruction is not done out of spite or anger, but rather is engaged in to relieve the tension of being alone, or in frantic attempts to escape the solitary confinement. Thus, the stress the dog is under translates into a physical problem. Separation anxiety is different from sheer boredom, which may cause digging, chewing or other unwanted behaviors. A dog that is bored is just looking for something to keep his mind occupied; a dog with separation anxiety is obsessed with the need for human (or sometimes canine) company.

Causes of Separation Anxiety

Although some dogs may be genetically predisposed to separation anxiety, it's widely believed that a dysfunctional background plays a major role in its development. Dogs with separation anxiety are often adopted from pet stores, have had multiple owners, or have experienced a traumatic upbringing. A common theme is that the dog suffers some interruption in his social bond. This can occur when owners board their dog for vacation, change their work schedule, of if a family member departs for an extended period (or forever).

Overly indulgent owners may encourage this condition in predisposed dogs. These people are usually nurturing, caring owners who spend a lot of time with their dog. They let the dog follow them around the house and encourage exuberant welcomes.

Symptoms of Separation Anxiety

Unwanted behavioral signs of separation anxiety are only seen when the owner is absent, or when the dog is prevented from being close to the owner (at night, for example). To reduce stress, the dog may become destructive by excessively chewing, digging and scratching near doors and windows. The mission to escape becomes a preoccupation. This is called "barrier frustration" and exit routes are the target as the dog tries to reunite himself with his owner. A dog may become frantic enough to injure himself, as he tries to defeat the barrier. Other signs of separation anxiety include:

  • House soiling
  • Whining or howling (only when the owner is not present)
  • Pacing
  • Excessive grooming
  • Diarrhea, vomiting and/or salivation

    When the owner returns, the dog is euphoric and greets her exuberantly. Then it follows her around and refuses to leave her side (not trusting her to stay put).

    What to do about Separation Anxiety

    Confining the dog to reduce destructiveness is not the answer and may make matters worse. Getting a "pet" for your pet is also unlikely to help. Usually, the dog is bonded with one or more persons and will not bond with another animal instead.

    The key is to break the cycle of anxiety by reducing the dog's dependence. The following may help:

  • When you go out, give your dog an acceptable item to chew, and one that he likes, like a long-lasting food treat. The goal is to have your dog associate your departure with a positive experience.

  • Make your dog more independent by reducing the amount of time you interact with him. Don't reward him by comforting him when he engages in attention-seeking behavior. Instead, ignore him – no eye contact and no physical contact.

  • Give him attention only when he is sitting or lying calmly.

  • Try to curtail his habit of following you around by teaching him to remain relaxed in one spot, such as his bed.

  • Get your dog used to being separated from you for varying lengths of time and at different times of day. Set up child gates to deny your dog access to you for periods during the day. Reward him with warm praise for complying calmly.

  • Do not let your dog to sleep with you. This only fosters dependence. In fact, your dog should be trained not to sleep in your bedroom.

    Other Strategies

    You should avoid the mistake of spending more time with your dog before you leave. This only increased his anxiety. Departures should be quick and quiet. Avoid the usual cues that signal your imminent departure. Everyone in the family should ignore the dog 15 to 20 minutes before leaving, and 10 to 20 minutes after returning home. Alternatively, act upbeat on our departure and feed him at this time (instead of earlier).

    Dogs should receive 15 to 20 minutes of sustained exercise at least once (but preferably twice) a day. Exercise is best done before you leave, giving the dog 15 minutes to calm down before you go out.

    Medication is often used in conjunction with the above treatment strategies and is generally helpful. Traditionally antidepressants like clomipramine (Clomicalm®), fluoxetine (Prozac®) or amitriptyline (Elavil®) are recommended. Clomicalm® has recently been FDA approved for use in dogs to treat separation anxiety.

    To learn more about separation anxiety, please click on Separation Anxiety In-depth.

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