Separation Anxiety in Dogs & Cats

dog separation anxiety

Leaving your pet at home alone all day is never a good feeling, but knowing they are suffering from separation anxiety while you are away can be extremely troubling. Before beginning to treat this behavioral problem, you should work to fully understand the extent of their anxiety and any other medical issues that may be at play. 

What is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety, which occurs in both puppies and adult dogs, is when your dog suffers from severe stress and behavior issues when left alone and is a very common phobia among many dogs. In some instances, dogs will become distressed or depressed before their owner leaves. While they are away, many dogs may exhibit destructive behavior such as urinating, barking, digging and trying to escape.

Why Do Some Dogs Suffer from Separation Anxiety?

A number of factors can affect why your dog may be suffering from separation anxiety. Many pet owners have noticed that dogs adopted from shelters often suffer from separation anxiety, which may suggest that the loss of an important person in their lives can trigger this behavior problem. Others have noted that smaller dogs who are used to constant companionship are more likely to experience separation anxiety as well. Additionally, several situational factors can cause separation anxiety. These include:

Schedule Changes

It’s important to keep in mind that your dog becomes accustomed to your routine and the amount of time they spend alone. If your schedule changes due to a new job or activity and the amount of time they spend at home along greatly increases, it is possible that your dog may experience separation anxiety.

anxious moving dog

Moving

Abrupt changes to a dog’s living environment can cause separation anxiety as your dog works to get acclimated with this new, unfamiliar space. Dogs, just like humans, need some time to adjust to new environments and the transitional period may be characterized by anxiety or uncertainty. If your dog was previously left in your backyard to roam and play throughout the day and is now left with only a small room to play, they may have a tougher time adjusting to this change.

Family Member Absence

Dogs develop extremely strong bonds with all household members. They quickly grow used to each person’s routine, daily interaction, and affection. If a family member or roommate is no longer around, your dog may experience separation anxiety as a result of this change in their daily life. This is especially common when your dog has grown up around the same core group of people and is now experiencing the loss of their consistent daily presence.

sad cat

Signs and Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Pets

Most dog owners would agree that their dogs don’t enjoy being left at home alone. This is why understanding the signs of separation anxiety and differentiating them from normal behavior is extremely important. Here are a few of the key signs of separation anxiety in pets:

  • Indoor Accidents
  • Persistent Barking
  • Destructive Behavior
  • Attempting to Escape
  • Incessant Pacing

For a full breakdown of each of the top separation anxiety signs and symptoms check out this helpful guide.

Potential Medical Problems

When attempting to diagnose and treat your pet’s separation anxiety, it is important to consider other medical factors that may be at play. Evaluate the following potential medical-related problems and speak with your vet before moving forward with any separation anxiety treatment.

Incontinence

Indoor accidents are a common indication of separation anxiety and may be the result of incontinence, a medical condition in which your dog leaks or is unable to control his/her bladder. Oftentimes dogs with incontinence problems are entirely unaware they have soiled themselves – some even having accidents while asleep. Incontinence can also be linked to a number of medical issues including hormonal imbalance, UTIs, urinary stones, and spinal injuries.

Medications

Unfortunately, there are a number of medications that can cause increased instances of in-home accidents. If your pet is currently taking any medication for other health issues, consult your vet to determine if they may be contributing to their accidents.

Behavior Problems

There are several behavioral problems that can mirror some of the signs of separation anxiety. Most common are a lack of proper house training in younger dogs, urine marking, boredom, and excessive barking triggered by irregular sights and sounds. It’s important to consider whether your pet appears to exhibit one of the aforementioned behavioral issues. Does your dog appear anxious as you leave or upon your return? Or do they simply seem to be destructive in your absence due to a lack of stimulation and exercise?

dog in crate

Crating: How to Know What’s Best for Your Dog

For many dogs, a crate can be extremely useful in establishing a “safe” space for them when left alone. Unfortunately, for dogs that suffer from separation anxiety, a crate can greatly add to their stress and discomfort.

The best way to determine whether a crate is the right fit for your dog is to observe them while in the crate and watch for signs of anxiety. Observing them while you are home will give you an indication of the effect that crating has on your dog. However, in order to get a full picture of your pet’s level of anxiety, you may want to set up a video camera to monitor them for a few hours while you are away. This will give you a clear picture of whether crating is helping to quell their anxiety.

Alternatives to Crating

When crating is not a viable option, the next step is to create a looser, enclosed space with a little more room for your dog to roam about. In this space, you should include toys to provide a viable distraction.

Helpful Tip: Many pet owners will leave behind some of their clothes to calm their dog with the familiar scent.

Separation Anxiety in Older Dogs

If your dog appears to have suddenly forgotten the “rules” and is regressing from their years of training, separation anxiety may be playing a larger role. As one of the most common behavioral issues in older dogs, separation anxiety is extremely prevalent for two major reasons:

Medical Ailments: As your dog ages it may develop a number of health issues that can contribute to separation anxiety problems. Older dogs may experience vision or hearing loss that can make them more anxious in general, especially when they are apart from their owner.

Learned Routine Behavior: It’s important to remember that the older your dog gets, the more dependent and reliant on a routine they tend to be. With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why something like a small schedule change can have a large impact on their anxiety. All of the situational causes previously discussed can be amplified by your dog’s age and years of learned routine behavior.

Separation Anxiety in Puppies

As most pet owners know, dogs form their habits early on during puppyhood. As a result, monitoring and correcting behavioral issues as soon as possible is critical. Here are some tips to help you prevent separation anxiety before it starts:

Crate Training: While crating might not be right for every dog, it’s easier to build these habits and help your puppy develop a healthy relationship with his/her crate early on. Many dog owners find great success with crate training, as it plays into their dog’s natural instincts of feeling safe in warm and enclosed spaces. While many dogs feel safer when left alone in a crate, it’s important to monitor their behavior to see if his/her anxiety increases when crated.

Positive Reinforcement: Using conditioning to establish healthy behaviors early on is a popular tactic used by many pet owners. Most puppies will initially react to being left alone negatively. However, if you find a way to reward them for behaving while you are gone, they can develop a positive association with being home alone. This can be especially helpful with getting your dog acclimated to crate training.

Exercise: Lack of exercise, especially in high-energy dogs, can be a huge contributor to overall anxiety in puppies. Taking your dog for a nice walk or playing a game of fetch before you leave them at home can be a quick fix to your puppy’s separation anxiety.

dog with separation anxiety

Treating Separation Anxiety

Before rushing into any formal type of treatment for separation anxiety, take a step back and assess just how severe the issue is. It is important that you speak with your veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical problems that may be symptomatic of separation anxiety.

Treating Mild Separation Anxiety

Overcoming mild separation anxiety with quick fixes is possible in certain cases, but it is important to keep in mind that these solutions will only work if your dog is suffering from mild anxiety.

Counterconditioning: With a milder case of separation anxiety, counterconditioning can be an effective way to reduce your dog’s negative reaction to being left alone. Counterconditioning works to create a new positive reaction by associating something good and comforting that the dog loves with the action. In this case, it can help your dog to develop a positive relationship with being left alone by being consistently rewarded with something as simple as their favorite treat or a fun toy. To create the strongest association, save this specific treat or toy exclusively for times when they are going to be left alone. This will help solidify and strengthen the bond even further.

Downplay Departures: Naturally, as pet owners, we tend to put a large emphasis on our arrivals and departures, which can condition your dog to do so as well. By engaging with your dog less before you leave, you can help them reduce their anticipation and overall anxiety level.

Treating Moderate to Severe Separation Anxiety

When treating moderate to severe separation anxiety, solutions are often more complex and can take a longer time to work through. Patience is key as you work through more gradual desensitization and counterconditioning. Consulting a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) or a Professional Dog Trainer is a good first step.

Pre-departure: Many dogs suffering from separation anxiety become anxious when they get the sense that you are leaving—even if you are just stepping out to grab the mail. Little indicators that you are getting ready to leave, such as putting on your shoes, can trigger pre-departure anxiety. To help your dog gradually desensitize from pre-departure anxiety, you can carry out a few of these “departure” actions and then not leave. Throw on your running shoes and make dinner; pick up your keys and put them back. Similar to when treating mild separation anxiety, downplaying departures is always a good practice to employ.

Helpful Tip: Don’t get frustrated if you feel like this treatment isn’t working fast enough. You are working against months and even years of pre-departure cues, and it will take time to see results.

Gradual Departures: Once you’ve made progress with treating your dog’s pre-departure anxiety (or if they don’t seem to suffer from pre-departure anxiety), you can move onto graduated departures. You can practice this by simply teaching your dog to sit and stay while you are on the other side of the door—gradually increasing the amount of time.

Helpful Tip: For these treatments to be effective, it’s important that, if possible, your dog not be left alone except during the specific desensitization sessions.

What Not to Do

Punishing your dog for experiencing separation anxiety is never the answer—especially when your dog is extremely well trained or in the later years of their life. While some of the symptoms of separation anxiety can be frustrating or make it seem like your pet is regressing to their untrained puppy days, it is important to put an emphasis on positive reinforcement and to avoid punishing or scolding your pet.

When to Seek a Solution

If you feel like your dog’s separation anxiety is failing to improve or even worsening, it may be time to consider supplements to help reduce their overall anxiety level. There are a large number of products available, so it is best to consult your veterinarian before moving forward with any form of treatment.

Brigid Grace

Canna-Pet® & Separation Anxiety: Brigid Grace’s Story

Brigid Grace, a Beagle/Daschund mix suffered from separation anxiety for over two years before her owners discovered Canna-Pet. They had to kennel her each time they left the house to keep her from destroying anything she could get her mouth on while their other dogs ran free. “You could see the sadness in her face each time we left. It broke our hearts to restrict her from playing with her fur family unsupervised,” her owner shared.

However, after trying Canna-Pet, her owners discovered that there was no need to kennel their furry friend and are noticing that Brigid Grace is a much happier dog all around – she is even training to be a therapy dog!

separation anxiety in dogs_canna-pet

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