Separation anxiety is a very distressing condition for pets and their owners. The bond between people and their animals is almost always mutually beneficial, but sometimes the pets can become so attached that they cannot function normally when their owners are not present. Dogs are most frequently affected by separation anxiety.
Signs of separation anxiety may begin when the dog first begins to pick up clues that its owner is about to leave or develop within the first half hour after the departure. Pets may not display all of the following behaviors, but whining, yipping, howling, house soiling, and damage to belongings or doors that block the dog's ability to follow the owner are typical. It is sometimes difficult to determine the cause of an animal's abnormal behavior, so if initial attempts at treatment are unsuccessful, make an appointment with your veterinarian and/or a professional animal behaviorist.
First of all, it is important to remember that dogs suffering from separation anxiety are not willfully misbehaving; they are truly scared. Scolding or physically punishing an animal under these circumstances will only serve to make matters worse. Lessening a dog's over-attachment to its owners and training it to relax are at the center of treating separation anxiety. Techniques to try include the following:
- encourage the dog to sleep in its own bed
- have different people feed, walk and play with the dog
- go through departure rituals (e.g., put on your coat, pick up your keys, etc.) but then don't leave or come right back inside
- don't make a big fuss over the dog when you come home
- provide pets with special playthings that can be used while you are gone (e.g., food dispensing toys) and remove them when you are at home
- leave the television or radio on or play music that the dog may associate with comforting situations with its owner
Diffusers that release a relaxing dog pheromone and anti-anxiety medications prescribed by a veterinarian can also be very helpful when added to an effective behavioral modification protocol.
Written by: Jennifer Coates, DVM
Last reviewed: October 2, 2008