Separation anxiety in dogs is another common disorder that impacts the lives of dogs and dog lovers across the country. It’s the most highly studied and one of the most common disorders affecting dogs in general, but we still don’t really have a quick and easy solution for this anxiety yet.
Basically, separation anxiety is a series of behaviors that show up when your dog is left alone. They may feel frightened, uncertain, or threatened and will begin to act out in order to alleviate their fears.
The symptoms may range in severity, but they will always present themselves when the dog is alone or feels separated.
The most obvious trigger for separation anxiety is actual separation. However, the severity of your dog’s anxiety can range from something as “normal” as freaking out when you leave the house to something as drastic as panicking whenever you’re in another room.
Some dogs may only exhibit signs of separation anxiety when they’re left alone in a manner that deviates from their usual routine. In other words, if your dog starts to act worried when you’re on vacation or in another home, these may be signs or symptoms of low grade separation anxiety.
Signs and Symptoms
As with noise anxiety, symptoms tend to manifest as either active, passive, or physiological signs. You may notice your dog displaying some combination of all three, or they may limit themselves to just one or two categories.
Active symptoms include pacing, running, circling, or basically any other behavior that shows a need for action or escape. This can also include digging and chewing, clawing and scratching, or climbing and jumping. Unfortunately, active symptoms can veer into barking and aggression, which can be frightening for dog owners.
Passive symptoms include hiding, crouching, and cowering. Passive dogs will attempt to hide from the source of their fears. They may also display physical behaviors like lip licking, whining, and a tucked tail.
Physiological signs are generally the most often reported signs, simply because they’re the most obtrusive in a dog owner’s life. A frightened dog may urinate or defecate uncontrollably. They may also salivate and tremble or pant. In severe cases, anxious dogs may stop eating and develop anorexia as an additional symptom.
One of the main flaws with spotting and diagnosing separation anxiety is the disconnect between visible and invisible signs. Anything that leaves a mess around the house (urination, defecation, shredding furniture and floors) is clearly visible as soon as you get home.
However, behavioral signs and symptoms (pacing and whining, for example) leave no physical evidence and therefore can be difficult to identify, which can make separation anxiety difficult to spot.
Keep a close eye on your dog’s behavior when you’re at home and when you’re getting ready to leave. If at all possible, you may want to get a camera to observe your dog’s behavior when you’re gone. This can help you get a clearer picture of how your dog behaves at all times, which will help you bring your concerns to your veterinarian or an animal behaviorist.
You should also keep track of how long your dog displays any particular symptoms. Do they “act up” as you’re getting ready to leave the house, but settle down once you’ve left? Do their signs and symptoms get worse after you’re gone, or do they tend to calm themselves down a little bit once the house is truly empty?
By keeping a careful record of your dog’s behavior, you’ll be giving yourself a firmer starting point in seeking out any sort of diagnosis or medical treatment. As a result, you and your dog will be able to get the help that you need in order to manage their symptoms much easier and more quickly than you would otherwise.
Diagnosis and Owner Participation
As briefly mentioned in our look at noise anxiety, comorbidity is a huge confounding factor when it comes to properly diagnosing anxiety. Comorbidity refers to a situation in which multiple disorders or illnesses are present at the same time, which means that their symptoms will most likely overlap as well.
For lots of dogs, it’s fairly common for separation anxiety in dogs to go hand in hand with some other form of canine anxiety. The most common co-culprit is confinement anxiety. If you notice your dog’s symptoms of anxiety get worse when they’re locked in a crate or even just confined in another room, you may have an issue with multiple forms of anxiety.
If your dog does suffer from multiple forms of anxiety, it can be difficult to decide on a treatment plan, as some of the different techniques for managing different forms of anxiety may contradict each other.
Trust Your Friendly Local Veterinarian
Because all of these symptoms can overlap and make treatment more difficult, it’s absolutely crucial that you get a proper diagnosis from a medical professional. Again, anxiety disorders are some of the most common ailments afflicting dogs worldwide, so most veterinarians and animal behavior specialists should be able to help you nail down the exact issue at play.
Once you have a solid diagnosis, you can start thinking about what you’ll need to do going forward. Because the different treatments can vary based on the severity of your dog’s condition and the possibility of multiple sources of anxiety, you’ll need to be certain that you’ve got the right diagnosis before you decide on any course of action.
Talk to your local veterinarian to make sure you’re in agreement and be ready to answer any questions that they might have regarding your dog’s symptoms, along with the duration of those symptoms.
Covering Your Bases
So what can you do to help make sure that your vet’s gotten the proper diagnosis? As mentioned earlier, it all comes down to having the right answers. By keeping a careful record of when your dog’s symptoms start to manifest, how long they manifest, any external factors that either compound or mitigate these symptoms, and the severity of the symptoms over time, you’ll be ready to engage in a professional dialogue with your local vet.
A video record can also be extremely helpful when it comes to diagnosing separation anxiety. Because your dog may behave differently when someone’s watching them, a video can help you get an idea of what your dog is like once you’re gone. It can also help by providing concrete proof of your dog’s disorder, which will help your veterinarian rule out other explanations in favor of helping you and your dog.
Things to Keep in Mind
The most important thing to keep in mind as you seek medical help for your dog is that there is no “cure” for anxiety. As in humans, anxiety disorders in dogs are difficult to address, and there’s no magical solution that will make everything better. Instead, most treatment programs for separation anxiety focus on managing the symptoms.
In other words, don’t get discouraged if your dog still shows signs of distress when you have to leave them alone. Focus on alleviating as much of that anxiety as possible, and remember that your dog probably isn’t going to get better overnight.
Keep in mind also that some breeds are naturally more prone to anxiety. Highly intelligent breeds (working dogs, retrievers, guard breeds) are more likely to develop symptoms of anxiety than other breeds may be. Your dog’s anxiety is not your fault. Don’t blame yourself for something outside of your control.
So What Can You Do to Help?
Of course, the responsibility doesn’t lie totally with your vet alone. While you may not be able to completely remove the source of your dog’s anxiety, there are certainly things you can do to help manage the symptoms. In general, these helping factors fall into one of two categories: medical and behavioral, or at-home treatments.
The most common medications prescribed for dogs with anxiety are antidepressants. Some dogs placed on a course of antidepressants may show improvement right away, while others may take up to six weeks to really start improving. While antidepressants may not alleviate the dog’s anxiety, they will at least shift most of their symptoms from active to passive. This reduces the amount of damage to your home and the risk of potential injury for your dog.
Some vets may also recommend rapid acting anxiolytics like trazodone and clonidine. In general, you should administer a dose of your dog’s suggested medication anywhere from one to two hours before you leave. By administering a fast-acting anti-anxiety medication before you start getting ready to leave, you’ll be able to avoid your dog’s tendency to work themselves into a frenzy once they notice you starting to prepare for departure.
Benzodiazepenes, minor sedatives prescribed to humans and animals alike, are another popular choice for managing the symptoms of anxiety. They are far less dangerous than other sedatives (barbiturates, for example) and are some of the most widely prescribed medications worldwide. Depending on the specific composition of the benzodiazepene your vet prescribes, you may have to administer more doses, but you generally should be safe giving your dog the recommended dosage an hour before leaving.
As with humans, a prescription is absolutely vital before you start medicating your dog. While you may have an idea of what your dog’s diagnosis may be, it can be extremely dangerous to draw up your own medication plan without the help of a medical professional. Talk to your vet before starting any line of pharmaceutical treatment, and follow their prescription to the letter. Anything else could actively harm your dog on a physical and mental level.
If your dog displays milder symptoms of anxiety, or if you prefer to take a behavioral approach rather than a pharmaceutical one, there are steps you can take at home to mitigate some of the worst factors of your dog’s anxiety. In general, your at-home treatment should cover at least one of four bases:
Try to avoid leaving your dog alone whenever possible, avoid confining your dog if that makes them more anxious, and try to avoid making a big production when you leave your home.
Play white noise or calming music whenever you have to leave your home and establish a “safe space” for your dog where they feel comfortable and secure. This could include crate training as a means of giving them their own “room” to retreat to when they feel anxious.
Do not punish your dog for their anxiety. Instead, try to keep your departures as low-key as possible and avoid interacting with your dog directly for at least fifteen minutes before you leave. If you’re dog-sitting a dog with separation anxiety, hold off on leaving until their “parents” have returned.
Give your dog something to occupy their mind (a long lasting treat or a toy they love) when you’re getting ready to leave. You may also want to look into relaxation training as a potential means of managing your dog’s anxiety and giving them a way of self-soothing and regulating their own behavior.
Some pet owners might be considering getting another dog as a way of ensuring that their anxious dog isn’t left at home alone. This is not a good solution. Studies suggest that adopting another dog will not help your dog manage their anxiety better, and can actually make matters worse by driving the second dog to develop symptoms of anxiety.
As always, remember that an anxious dog doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad pet owner. Instead, it only presents an unfortunately common set of issues to overcome, which means that you are not alone in looking for help and treatment to get your dog in a healthier, happier place.