Dogs are loyal companions and true family members. We love them, they love us, let’s go places together! However, some dogs develop an unhealthy attachment that can turn into a psychological behavioral disorder called separation anxiety. We checked in with Dr. Sharon L. Campbell, DVM, MS, DACVIM from Zoetis, about spotting separation anxiety in dogs and effectively treating this issue so you and your dog can live happily ever after!
Neighbors or landlords complaining about excessive barking while you’re out, or hearing yelps behind the door each time you leave, could mean your dog is experiencing separation anxiety. Yes, all dogs bark from time to time, but relentless barks for no reason (other than your absence) is a good indicator something’s up.
If it’s meal time or you own a bloodhound, drool is expected. If you’re running an errand and you come home to find your dog’s chest and snout covered in slobber, separation anxiety could be the culprit.
Dr. Campbell described hyper-attachment as an intense version of your canine following you around like, well, a puppy dog. Being unable to spend a moment away from his owners—even while they’re home—probably means Fido suffers from separation anxiety.
Accidents in the house
Just like cats, who experience separation anxiety less frequently but just as intensely, dogs with this behavior disorder may leave nasty presents around the house while you’re out. It’s an explicit way of showing their distress.
You read that correctly: redecorating. Dr. Campbell mentioned some dogs will knock pillows off the couch, tip over lamps or nudge furniture to new places if left alone for too long. This is usually evidence of your pup either trying to escape or simply dealing with their anxiety. (Anyone else use reorganization as a stress reliever?)
Obviously, ripping stuff to shreds or chewing on your leather loafers can be all in good “fun,” but it can also be a dog’s way of acting out. Again, if this primarily happens while you’re gone or right after you return from a trip, it could be separation anxiety.
What separation anxiety is not
Dr. Campbell made it clear that this affliction is different than anger or boredom, two emotions dogs don’t really have the capacity to express. Don’t brush off the symptoms listed above as your pup getting bored; it’s a serious medical condition that requires treatment.
Older dogs can also develop a condition called canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome. This disease is essentially doggy Alzheimer’s. It can both mimic signs of separation anxiety and cause it as a consequence of the condition. Separation anxiety can also pop up as a natural part of the aging process as elderly dogs lose their sight, hearing and ability to navigate their environments.
Why it happens
The truth is, we don’t really know why, but experts have been able to make some associations. Often, young puppies who aren’t well-socialized may be more likely to develop it. Some dogs develop it in conjunction with a condition called noise aversion, according to Dr. Campbell. Basically, if you’re out with friends on July 4th and the loud sounds of fireworks terrify Fido, he could start to associate that fear with your absence. The traumatic effect can simultaneously trigger noise aversion and separation anxiety. The reasons are different for each dog, though, so work with what you know about your pup.
What to do
Never punish your dog for the behaviors listed above. Dogs do not act out of spite! They act out because they are anxious and afraid.
It’s important to check in with your vet if your dog exhibits any of the behavior (or combos of behaviors) listed above. If your vet’s diagnosis is separation anxiety, don’t jump ship and don’t ignore it! Dogs won’t outgrow it, but there are changes you can make in your own behavior to ease their anxiety.
“Remove the emotional highs and lows associated with leaving,” advises Dr. Campbell. Coming and going shouldn’t be huge events. Instead of jingling keys and saying a dramatic goodbye in the morning, pack up the night before and be as nonchalant as possible heading out. When you arrive home, wait a few minutes before greeting your pup with enthusiasm. Look at your mail. Change your clothes. Then say hello, pat your pet and give him a treat. (This is hard—we know! But establishing a sense of calm around your arrivals and departures can dramatically decrease the stress Fido feels when you aren’t around.)
Dr. Campbell recommends giving dogs an interactive treat toy to occupy them each time you leave. This way, they entertain themselves and earn a reward. Hopefully, over time they associate your walking out the front door with more positivity and less trauma.
Getting proper treatment early is important. First, tell your vet about your dog’s signs so she can determine if separation anxiety is the true culprit. Your vet can then determine the best treatment options for your dog. She may also be able to refer you to a veterinary behaviorist or trainer for instructions and coaching on how to employ behavior modifications.
Though CBD oil is a trending treatment for both people and animals right now, Dr. Campbell advises sticking to FDA-approved medications. There is no safety or efficacy data on using CBD oil in dogs with separation anxiety. Both Clomicalm and Reconcile are FDA-approved tablets that combat separation anxiety in dogs. If your dog also experiences noise aversion, Dr. Campbell suggests asking your veterinarian about Sileo, the first medication approved by the FDA for treatment of noise aversion in dogs. Definitely consult your vet before administering any medication and know these work best when paired with behavior training over time.
Getting your dog’s separation anxiety under control will improve his quality of life…and yours.