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Signs of separation anxiety in dogs and how to help

Worried your dog misses you a little too much when you're away? Experts share the signs your dog has separation anxiety and what you can do about it.

Signs of separation anxiety in dogs and how to help

When you head out for the day, it’s natural for your pet to follow you to the front door and maybe bark, whine or get into a little mischief while you’re out. However, if it continues for prolonged periods of time, your pet causes damage to your home or inflicts pain on themselves, your pup may suffer from separation anxiety. While pet sitters and doggie day care can help address separation anxiety in pets, it’s best for pet owners to get to the root of the problem so they can find a permanent solution.

What is separation anxiety?

“Separation anxiety involves a physiologic response to the stress of isolation or separation from a particular owner,” according to veterinarian Nuala McDermott at Lincoln Square Veterinary Hospital in New York.

Dogs with separation anxiety may be attached to a particular person, so much that they attempt to follow that individual everywhere they go.

“While dogs can exhibit signs of separation anxiety when there is a virtual absence (i.e. the owner is in another room), most commonly, the signs will be exhibited when the owner has departed,” McDermott says.

What are the signs of separation anxiety in dogs?

Some of the most common signs that your dog may be suffering from separation anxiety include:

  • Hypersalivation (excessive drooling).
  • Urination.
  • Defecation.
  • Vomiting.
  • Panting.
  • Self-mutilation.
  • Destruction.
  • Attempts to escape.
  • Aggression.
  • Pacing.
  • Vocalization.
  • Immobilization.
  • Injury.

Only a veterinarian or animal behavior specialist can diagnose separation anxiety in pets, which is why visiting a doctor is critical at the onset of any continuously negative behavior. People can mistakenly believe their pet suffers from separation anxiety when in fact they may have isolation distress, a less intense stress behavior.

Separation anxiety is not…

  • When your dog urinates or defecates in the room because it is not properly house-trained.
  • When your dog makes an occasional mess.
  • When your dog barks, howls or whines for a few minutes upon your departure.
  • When your dog follows you from room to room or scratches at your door when it’s closed.
  • When your dog is very excited to see you when you return.

What to do if your dog shows signs of separation anxiety

If your dog routinely displays one or more of these signs, you should schedule an appointment with your veterinarian and share what you are experiencing.

Many of the exhibited behaviors can be caused by an underlying medical problem, so McDermott suggests that your dog undergo a thorough physical exam and baseline test to rule out underlying physical problems.

While it may be frustrating to come home to a pet who has left a huge mess for you to clean up, the last thing you want to do is punish your dog. Your dog is acting out because it’s anxious, and punishment may make the situation worse. This is the time to be understanding and patient with your pet and work with your veterinarian to develop a comprehensive behavioral modification plan.

How to help a dog with separation anxiety

“For most dogs, medication is part of a comprehensive behavioral plan, along with things like exercise and a reward-based trading plan,” McDermott says.

She recommends the following:

  1. Remove anything your pet is harming themselves on. For instance, if your dog is breaking its teeth trying to chew its way out of a crate, leave it uncrated until a behavioral plan is put into action.
  2. Set up a video camera in your home to capture your dog’s behavior when you’re not around. You can do this with your mobile phone or home security device, and the footage could prove to be an invaluable diagnostic tool to share with your veterinarian.
  3. Ensure your dog is getting enough exercise, especially before leaving them alone for extended periods of time.
  4. Establish a behavior modification plan between you and your dog (i.e. confinement training), and ensure all members of the household are following the structure at all times.
  5. Reward positive behavior.
  6. Put a Thundershirt on your dog — an apparatus that gently applies pressure to your pet’s torso to relieve anxiety.
  7. Put a pet pheromone collar on your dog — a calming collar that mimics dog pheromones for up to four weeks.
  8. Use a diffuser with essential oils that can also mimic dog pheromones and helps with calming anxiety in pets.

“This can be a challenging problem to overcome,” McDermott says, “but with dedicated pet owners, patience and a comprehensive behavioral plan with or without medication, prognosis for separation anxiety is generally good and, in most cases, the behavior can either be suppressed or substantially reduced.”