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Separation Anxiety in Dogs

By: Dr. Alice Moon-Fanelli

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Dogs are social animals that form strong bonds with people, so it is not surprising that they may feel somewhat anxious when separated from their social group. Most dogs adapt well to the typical daily separation from their owners. Unfortunately, problems can arise when an overly dependent dog develops a dysfunctionally strong attachment to her owners. The dog with separation anxiety is distinguished by signs of distress when left alone and over-attachment when the owner is present.

Separation anxiety may be manifested as destruction of the owner's property and other behaviors that may be harmful for the dog or annoying for people sharing the dog's immediate environment.

It is important to realize that dogs with separation anxiety are not doing these things to get even with the owner for leaving, out of boredom, or due to lack of obedience training. These dogs are not being destructive out of "spite" or "anger." They are truly distressed when left behind.

Consider instead that the dog's dependence on the owner is so great that she becomes anxious when the owner leaves. The dog must find an outlet for this anxiety, and her methods of doing so may cause considerable damage. Also consider that, no matter how flattering a dog's constant attention to her owners may seem, it is not fair to the dog to allow her to be so stressed by the owner's absence that she must resort to one of these unwanted behaviors to alleviate inner tension.

For some dogs, the anxiety associated with being left alone becomes evident to their owners soon after they join the household. In some cases, dogs may be genetically predisposed to anxiety but inappropriate or insufficient socialization experiences during the juvenile period is the most likely cause. For some dogs, no initiating trigger can be identified. Symptoms of separation anxiety may develop gradually over time or may appear in full-blown form the first time they are left alone.

The onset of separation anxiety sometimes occurs after the dog is exposed to an experience that disrupts its social bond. This can occur when owners board the dog for vacation or change their work schedule. It may also occur when a household member leaves or dies, or when the dog is relocated to a new house or household.

Overly indulgent owners may promote separation distress in predisposed dogs. Owners of dogs that show separation distress are often nurturing, empathetic people who indulge their dog. They allow the dog to follow them around the house and encourage the exuberant welcome the dog gives them when they return home. Somewhat less-nurturing (but by no means neglectful) owners may help instill independence in the dog thus circumventing the worst throes of the problem and permitting its gradual resolution.

Separation anxiety may be confused with other separation-related behavior problems that occur in the owner's absence. A lack of stimulation leads some dogs to engage in excessive and destructive "exploring," barking and other nuisance behavior. This type of problem does not necessarily indicate a dysfunctional bond with the owner.

Cause

It is widely held that dogs with a dysfunctional background (adopted from shelters, puppy mills, pet stores, dogs that have had multiple owners or traumatic handling early in life) are more prone to separation anxiety. Whether this is because these dogs were relinquished or abused, or whether the condition emerged after their abandonment, is not known for certain. Certainly, inadequate early socialization is a concern with puppy mill and pet store dogs, but not all dogs acquired from these facilities develop separation anxiety.

It also has been reported that mixed breed dogs appear to suffer from separation anxiety more commonly than purebred dogs. Since more mixed breed dogs are obtained from shelters than purebred dogs, this raises a question: Does exposure to a shelter environment predispose some dogs to develop separation anxiety or are more mixed breed dogs relinquished to a shelter as a result of preexisting separation related issues?

It is possible that some dogs are genetically predisposed to develop stronger than normal attachment to members of their social group. Logically, we would predict that these dogs would be more submissive in temperament. Such dogs may belong to breeds that have been genetically selected to form overly tight bonds with owners in order to perform a "job," such as hunting or herding.

Dogs that develop separation anxiety are often young dogs. However, geriatric dogs may develop separation anxiety in response to physical discomfort accompanying old age. These dogs become less independent and more emotionally attached to the owners as a consequence of their infirmity.

Presentation

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 instance). Under such circumstances, a needy dog is in a high state of anxiety because she wants to be with her owner and is prevented from doing so. Dogs, like people, cannot stay in a high state of anxiety for long, and must do something to relieve the tension.

To reduce the tension, dogs may engage in destructive behavior, house soiling, and distress vocalization. Other signs may include a reduced activity level, depression, loss of appetite, ritualized pacing, aggression when the owner leaves (mouthing, growling, nipping, or body blocking), excessive grooming, diarrhea, vomiting, panting and salivation. Signs of over-attachment when the owner is home include excessive following behavior, anxious behaviors associated with signals that the owner is preparing to depart, and exuberant greetings.

Excessive chewing, digging and scratching tends to occur in areas near doors and windows ("barrier frustration"). Damage in such areas is virtually diagnostic of separation anxiety. These areas represent exit routes for the dog as she attempts to reunite herself with the owner or, at least, to escape the loneliness. If the dog is confined to a crate, or her movements are restricted by a gate, destruction is usually centered around the crate door or the gate itself. The dog may seriously injure herself during these escape attempts. Attempts to free herself from barriers may result in broken nails or teeth, a bloody mouth, or more extensive injuries from tearing through glass and wood. Dogs may also destroy property that carries the owner's scent, such as bedding, furniture, clothing, or shoes.

Barking, howling and whining are other common signs of separation anxiety. Distress vocalization and active seeking behavior occur when many social animals are separated from their companions. Such distress vocalizations represent the dog's attempt to reunite the social unit. Excessive vocalization may occur primarily at the time of the owner's departure or may continue throughout the duration of the owner's absence. Owners are often unaware that their dog is distressed by the departure and it is only when neighbors complain about the excessive barking or howling that they become aware that their dog has a separation problem.

Dogs with separation anxiety may become so distressed in their owners' absence that they urinate or defecate in the house. When this occurs only in the owner's absence, such "inappropriate" elimination is not indicative of a loss of house training but rather is a physiological response to the extreme distress the dog is experiencing from being alone. House soiling typically occurs within 30 minutes of the owner's departure as the dog becomes more anxious.

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