Veterinarian Reviewed on January 31, 2008 by Dr. Janice Huntingford
Although almost any pet can suffer from separation anxiety, dogs are the most likely pet to develop this problem. Separation anxiety is basically your dog’s fear of being alone and there are several adverse behaviours associated with separation anxiety. In fact, most behavioural problems pet owners experience with dogs can often be attributed to separation anxiety. Dogs, and most pets, are social animals that form close attachments to their owners, litter mates, and other dogs. When owners and pets form a trusting relationship that is defined by healthy interaction an attachment is formed. Sometimes however, attachments are not so healthy and pets can become overly reliant on their owner and problem behaviours often result. Behaviours that are often the result of separation anxiety include urinating and defecating indoors, destruction of property, barking, howling, and whining. In addition, separation anxiety is associated with other psychological problems like depression and hyperactivity.
Determining whether these behaviours are actually the result of separation anxiety or if they are the symptom of another illness can be quite tricky. However, there are a few signs in particular that you should watch for if you suspect your pet is suffering from separation anxiety. For example, if destructive or problem behaviours occur shortly after you leave your pet, if your pet tends to bark and howl excessively after you leave, and if your pet is exceptionally welcoming or overly affectionate on your return then you have good reason to consider separation anxiety.
Causes of Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety is essentially a psychological disease for pets. If your dog or cat has experienced traumatic events in their younger life then they may be more likely to form overly dependent attachments to their owners. Some situations in which dogs seem to be more likely to develop separation anxiety include when they have been separated from their mother too young, when they are left in isolation during puppy-hood, when the level of interaction between owner and pet decreases drastically, or when a long term family member is permanently absent (because of divorce or death perhaps).
Managing Separation Anxiety
If your pet is suffering from separation anxiety there can be very serious implications. Perhaps you return from work frequently to find that your furniture or carpeting has been destroyed. In fact, separation anxiety is not only psychologically painful for your pet but can be extremely costly. As a result, treating separation anxiety is very important. There are some treatments, such as obedience training, that focus on eliminating the detrimental symptoms of separation anxiety. Obedience training allows the pet owner to reduce or eliminate problem behaviour but the underlying separation anxiety remains. Instead, the focus of treatment should be “curing” the separation anxiety. One method that is gaining popularity involves scheduling your absences to expose your dog to gradually longer absences. Essentially, you would have planned absences daily where you would gradually increase the amount of time you leave your pet on its own. The idea here is that your dog will grow steadily more confident that you will return and will not demonstrate problem behaviours.
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Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for over 30 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan