Separation anxiety

Panting, destructive chewing, urinating and defaecating when alone are signs of separation anxiety.

Overview

Anxiety or stress can be extremely debilitating and render a pet susceptible to emotional and health problems.

Separation anxiety is a behavioural condition that occurs in both cats and dogs when separated from their owner. Typical signs include destructive behaviours that occur when left alone. Although the causes of separation anxiety are not fully understood, it is apparent that genetics and environmental factors play a role.

The goal of treatment is to teach the dog to tolerate being alone. The management involves environmental and behaviour modification with or without medication.

Signs

Common signs of separation anxiety:

  • Panting
  • Whimpering
  • Chewing excessively
  • Barking
  • Salivating
  • Urinating
  • Defaecating
  • Destructive behaviour

Causes

Common causes of separation anxiety:

  • Change of ownership
  • Being left alone longer than usual
  • New house
  • Sudden absence of household member

Common triggers for separation anxiety:

  • Left alone
  • Left with a non-primary carer such as a pet sitter
  • Denied access to a carer such as in another room or outside
  • Sudden change in routine
  • Exposure to a scary event such as a thunderstorm
  • Old age

Management

If your pet is showing these signs, book them in for a full veterinary examination to rule out medical conditions first. If your pet is considered healthy, your veterinarian will consider environmental and behaviour modifying techniques and in severe cases, prescribe medication.

Environmental modification

Providing your pet with a relaxation mat

The use of relaxation scents such as lavender or Adaptil spray

Behavioural modification

Training your pet to relax on a mat

Giving praise and treats when relaxed

Slowly leaving your pet in a relaxed condition for seconds initially and slowly extending this to minutes and hours

Finding the triggers for its anxiety such as picking up the car keys or grabbing a jacket and performing this a number of times a day without leaving and rewarding your pet for relaxed behaviour.

Never punish your pet for anxious behaviour

Medication

Medication may be prescribed, particularly in severe cases and has been shown to improve behaviours four times faster when combined with behavioural modification.

Bloodwork is often required prior to commencing medications

Medications can be prolonged (up to 8-12 months) or lifelong

Tips

Tips to help manage a pet with separation anxiety:

  • Play music or keep the TV on when the pet is at home alone
  • Provide chew toys for when pet is at home alone
  • Avoid making a big fuss when you leave or return - wait at least 10 minutes to allow them to get into a calm state before giving attention
  • Do not give attention to bad behaviours such as jumping up, pawing at you, or whining
  • Leave pet-approved pet toys such as the KONG
  • Freeze food overnight in KONG toys
  • Hire a professional pet walker
  • Doggy day care
  • Take your pet to spend a day with a friend's pet (supervised)
  • Create a pet play area in the backyard
  • Hide small amounts of treats in the yard
  • Exercise the pet first thing in the morning or straight after work

If the anxiety becomes excessive, seek veterinary attention. Your vet will be able to put a management program together which includes modifying the environment, behaviour with or without the use of medication.