Separation anxiety is very common in dogs. And, the dog symptoms are very unique. The behaviors associated with the distress of being in the absence of their pet parent or not having adequate access to their pet parent can manifest in the destruction of property, chewing, peeing, pooping, barking (and the subsequent law enforcement officer showing up at your door), and more.
It is estimated that 14% of dogs have separation anxiety in some form. Although dogs are the main patients who usually start showing signs at the age of 12 to 36 months, cats are also affected but at a slighter older age. My sister’s cat has separation anxiety manifesting as self-mutilation. Unfortunately, she spent a lot of money at vet offices trying to figure out why her cat chewed on her nipples before driving a far distance to have us check her out. Her cat got very attached to her when she was at home with an illness for over a month, and when she went back to work, the separation anxiety ensued.
That is not uncommon… when a pet has exclusive access to a person and they are suddenly cut off from them, they feel abandoned, their stress increases, and they try to cope with “abnormal” behaviors – like nipple licking in my sister’s cat’s case. Other contributing factors to separation anxiety (SA) include traumatic occurrences in the absence of their pet parents (lightning strike, a break-in, or a fire), or severe illness that decreases the pet’s ability to cope.
One of the most common misconceptions is that pets that have separation anxiety have been spoiled or have been coddled. This has been disproved in the behavior literature. Explain how your pet is behaving and ask a vet if your pet may have signs of separation anxiety.
Buffy, The Moonwalker
Here is an example of a dog that had acute onset of SA after a traumatic occurrence while their pet parent was not home. Buffy is a 13-year-old Shih Tzu who was brought to my office for destroying pillows and pooping on the carpet. Buffy never did this before, but the strangest thing was that her behavior changed after a thunderstorm and that she suddenly began to walk through the sliding door to the sun room backwards – only when leaving the sun room to go back into the living room. She also had disappeared in the basement for several hours until she was pulled out from behind the drier after a thunderstorm.
Walking backwards- I wanted to see this so the client took a video. I should have kept that video. Turns out, after Buffy was done sunning, she would walk to the sliding door, do a 180, and then walk backwards for four feet, turn around and run. It turns out that lightening struck while her back was turned during a lightening storm, so she had to be sure to “watch her back” and destroy things to cope.
Separation anxiety is over represented in the population of storm or noise phobic dogs. But one thing is for sure, if you pet is showing signs of separation anxiety, the longer you wait to treat it, the harder it is to fix.
Therapy is very important. It is recommended that if your pet has a diagnosis of SA that you should really start them on medications to help with their stress so they don’t injure themselves. I have seen pets with SA show up with broken teeth and ingestion of wall material and worse. If you don’t want to try medication with a training/behavior modification program, it is recommended that you don’t leave them alone.
If you have an open mind…and you should, you should check out holistic approaches to SA. I have had success with tape-recorded-sounds to decrease SA symptoms of pets with anxiety (consider the radio, TV, ocean sounds, etc). You must check out “Use of Herbal Remedies to Control Pet Behavior” if you are open to non-traditional medicine – you just need to be careful.
Behavioral modification has worked, as the only treatment, with variable success. This involves rewarding for decreased reactivity, desensitizing the pet to departure cues (such as getting your car keys, putting on your jacket to leave, etc.). I have had great success with some dog that are food motivated to freeze a food puzzle into a Kong and drop it on the floor a few minutes before leaving. The most important thing is that you do not punish them for SA behavior. This can really screw with their mental health because the one person that they need in their life to not feel upset and stressed is punishing them. There are so many behavioral modification techniques, but here is an article focusing on the basics.
What happened to Buffy?
Buffy went through behavioral modification and was fortunate to have a retired pet parent to work with her. She didn’t really respond to the therapy, in my opinion, because her owner was almost always home and couldn’t truly do the therapy to desensitize for departure cues and give her enough practice at being alone being okay. We actually had to put her on a behavioral drug, fluoxetine (generic Prozac which costs less than $4 a month for a small dog) and after a few weeks, the destructiveness began to subside.
Buffy is no longer on the medication and was tapered off months ago. Buffy no longer destroys the furniture or poops at the door on the carpet. However, Buffy still, and probably always will, walk backwards through that sliding door. Buffy’s pet parent is okay with this and shows this off to dinner guests who find it absolutely hilarious.
Leave a comment if you have questions about separation anxiety!