Canine Separation Anxiety
by Barbara S. Simpson, Ph.D, DVM, Diplomate ACVB, The Veterinary Behavior Clinic
Canine separation anxiety is a common behavioral disorder and is diagnosed in 20% to 40% of canine cases presented to specialty behavior clinics. Although the exact cause is unknown, separation anxiety is thought to be a product of the social nature of dogs and their attachment to specific individuals. Neurophysiologic and genetic factors may also be important. Signs of canine separation anxiety occur when an affected dog is left alone or is separated from its “significant person.” Anxiety is expressed by pacing, whining, salivating, and destructiveness. The dog’s behavior when alone may be in marked contrast to the way it acts in the presence of the owner, when it may never exhibit signs of anxiety. The owner may be unaware that the dog’s behavior is due to an anxiety disorder and may attribute it to the human emotion “spite”.
Signalment and History
The signalment for canine separation anxiety is variable. The dog may be of either sex, although males appear to be more commonly affected. The disorder may occur in any breed, but mixed-breeds are over represented in surveys. The typical age of presentation is 9 months to 2 years. Later separation anxiety may appear in older dogs as their sensory world diminishes and they become more and more dependent on their owners.
Among young dogs, one of two historical presentations is common. The first is a dog that has exhibited signs of canine separation anxiety from puppyhood, perhaps as an extension of the distress that all puppies express when isolated from their littermates and mother. The other is a dog adopted from a rescue group or animal shelter. In the latter case, it is possible either that the dog was abandoned because of separation-related problems or that the dog had lived with other dogs and had no prior experience with social isolation. Clinicians often have the impression that the adopted dog, after a life of deprivation, bonds quickly to its new owner and demonstrates extreme distress when separated from him or her.
There is no evidence that “spoiling” a dog by allowing it to sleep on the bed or furniture and allowing it to ride in the car on errands contributes to separation anxiety. There is evidence, however, that many owners of dogs with separation anxiety have a particularly close relationship with their pet.
Diagnosis is made based on the behavioral history and the exclusion of differential diagnoses, which may be medical or behavioral. Behaviors characteristic of canine separation anxiety include destructiveness, elimination, hypersalivation, and vocalization. To make a definitive diagnosis, these behaviors must not occur in the house when the owner is home. That is, they must be restricted to times when the dog is left alone. Dogs may exhibit one or more of these signs.
Destructiveness is a common presenting sign. Often the dog’s destructive behavior is focused around the door that the owner has exited but may include other sites of egress, including windows and other doors. The molding around doors or windows may be chewed and clawed, and the door itself may be extensively damaged. Digging may occur at the base of the doors to the point that the carpeting or other floor covering is damaged. Dogs left outdoors may direct their destructiveness toward the outside of doors and windows as they attempt to get inside the house, which is the route of the owner’s departure.
In other dogs, destructiveness focuses on specific objects in the house. Articles of clothing, including shoes worn by the owner, may be sought out, moved to a new location, and chewed. Some dogs chew furniture, newspapers, and magazines, and overturn trash cans. A dog left in a crate when the owner leaves may tear up bedding or newspapers in the crate, chew on its bars, or attempt to dig out of it. The owner may return home to find the dog has broken its teeth or nails in its attempt to escape.
Differential diagnoses include general destructiveness, thunderstorm phobia, and territorial behavior. General destructiveness is especially common in young dogs, which may be particularly destructive when unsupervised by the owner. In such dogs, destructiveness may occur only when the owner leaves and no longer monitors the dog; a thorough history, however, may reveal that the dog chews objects if not carefully observed.
Dogs fearful of noises such as thunderstorms may exhibit destructive behavior when frightened while the owner is gone. Territorial behavior may be manifest as chewing around doorways and windows in an attempt to contact visitors to the house, such as postal workers or delivery persons. These explanations for destructiveness must be ruled out through discussions with the owner before a diagnosis of separation anxiety can be made.
Fecal or urinary elimination in the house is a common presenting sign of canine separation anxiety and is related to autonomic arousal. If this occurs when the dog is confined to a crate, the dog may have soiled itself. When both fecal and urinary elimination occur, separation anxiety is a likely explanation, since few medical disorders cause these concurrent signs.
Differential diagnoses for elimination when the owner is absent include house training failure, male urine marking, noise phobia, gastrointestinal or urinary tract disorders, and seizures. Dogs not fully house trained will eliminate when the owner is not present to supervise them, and male dogs often urine mark in the house; these incidents may mimic the signs of canine separation anxiety. The behavioral history should be investigated to verify that the dog never or rarely eliminates in the house unless the owner is absent.
The numerous medical causes of inadequate voluntary control of feces or urine should also be investigated. For fecal incontinence, these include internal parasites, enteritis, and malabsorption syndrome; for urinary incontinence, these include cystitis, cystic or urethral calculi, diabetes, or latrogenic causes of polyuria. Epileptic dogs may have seizures during the day while the owner is gone, with the only remaining sign being elimination in the house. It is critical to rule out medical causes of elimination in a dog that is well house trained.
Hypersalivation occurs in a small percent of dogs that exhibit separation anxiety. In these cases, the owner may return to find the dog’s face, chest, and forelimbs soaked with saliva. Dogs left in crates may be standing in a puddle of saliva at the end of the day. The owner often reports excessive water consumption when he or she returns, as the dog compensates for transient dehydration. When the hypersalivation occurs only in the owner’s absence, it may be considered pathognomonic for canine separation anxiety.
Dogs may vocalize when the owner leaves, indicating distress and frustration. The vocalizations noted include plaintive whining, howling, and barking. Neighbors may report such vocalizations to the owner. The pattern is often highly individualized: some dogs whine as the owner prepares to leave, and others howl during the entire time the owner is gone. An anticipatory greeting bark may occur when the owner returns and is not necessarily related to separation anxiety.
Although whining, barking, and howling occur in dogs in many contexts unrelated to separation anxiety, the owners of dogs with this disorder often report that as they leave their home, the dog produces a particular vocal sound that is distinguished from vocalizations at other times.
Dogs that exhibit separation anxiety often have highly affiliated relationships with their owners. The following traits are frequently observed:
- The dog remains close to the owner, following him or her about the house
- The dog becomes distressed as the owner moves further away, such as a trip to the mailbox or to take out the trash
- The dog shows signs of restlessness or depression as the owner prepares to leave
- The dog greets the owner excessively upon his or her return home
- The dog may be anorexic when the owner is absent and may eat only in the presence of the owner
Separation anxiety is a manageable condition. Best success is obtained by a multifaceted treatment program that changes the environment of the dog while it is alone, changes the relationship between the owner and the dog, and provides anti anxiety therapy in the form of appropriate medication. The veterinary technician can play a critical role in the success of the treatment of separation anxiety by educating the owner and advising him or her on the steps in a therapy program.