Home Alone: Canine Separation Anxiety
Wayne Hunthausen, DVM
Animal Behavior Consultations
Separation anxiety is a distressing behavior problem with serious consequences for the owner as well as the pet. Dogs with this disorder exhibit exaggerated signs of anxiety when they do not have access to family members. It usually happens when the owner is away from home, but may occur when the owner is home but the dog can’t get the owner’s attention or the pet’s access to the owner is blocked. Approximately fourteen per cent of pet dogs seen in veterinary hospitals in the United States are suspected to suffer from separation anxiety (Allpoints Research 1997). There are no notable differences between sexes or breeds of dogs in regard to risk of development of separation anxiety, but studies have indicated that there are significantly more mixed-breeds, dogs adopted from humane societies and dogs over ten years of age that present for this problem (Voith and Borchelt 1985, McCrave et al 1986, Chapman and Voith 1990).
Highly social species, such as dogs, exhibit attachment behaviors which serve to maintain social contact and bonds between adult individuals as well as between parent and offspring (McCrave 1991). In situations where an individual loses contact with the group, the resultant anxiety can trigger behaviors that will attract other members (vocalizations), behaviors that help remove barriers (digging, chewing) or ones that facilitate the restoration of contact (increased activity) with other members. It is this underlying drive to be with members of the established social group that provides the foundation for hyper-attachment problems to develop.
The underlying issue involves hyper-attachment to one or more family members. The onset of problems often coincides with changes in the amount of time that the owner spends with the pet. A new social relationship, working late, or returning to work after an extended stay at home are all examples of changes in the owner’s life that can be upsetting for the pet. Environmental stress such as a move to a new home or a traumatic event might also contribute to a separation anxiety problem. In some older pets, the problem may gradually develop on its own without any major environmental changes. Although the exact etiology of these types of changes in senior and geriatric dogs is unknown, changes in the physiology of the aging canine brain may serve to facilitate the development of separation anxiety.
Some owners are convinced that the destructive behaviors are purposefully directed toward them because the pet is “mad” about being left alone or confined. Part of this reasoning is due to the fact that the objects that are commonly damaged include personal items belonging to the owner, such as books, clothing, shoes and sofa cushions. What these objects have in common is that they are frequently handled by the owner and carry the owner’s scent. Contact with these items may serve to remind the pet of the absent owner, which causes anxiety that triggers destructive displacement behaviors.
Treatment for separation anxiety involves developing independence for the dog by adjusting the relationship with the owner and promoting calmness when the owner is gone. This is done by managing the environment, teaching the owner alternate ways of interacting with the pet, using behavior modification, and, for severe cases, prescribing medication (Reconcile, Clomicalm).
Diagnosing separation anxiety
The diagnosis involves collecting historical information about the pet that reveals hyper-attachment to the owner, anxiety at the time of the owner’s departure and owner-absent behavior problems for which other medical and behavioral causes have been ruled out.