With many of us working longer and longer hours, our pets are, sadly, having to be left on their own, often for prolonged periods during a day. Most cats are fine with this, being generally self-contained and self-sufficient animals, but dogs find it more of a trial. While most dogs will adapt (even if they don’t like it), some seem to really struggle, and may develop a behavioural condition called Separation Anxiety. This is highly distressing to the dog, destructive to the house, and upsetting to the owner, so in this blog we’re going to look at this condition and how it can be prevented and, if necessary, managed and treated.

What is it?

Essentially, it’s what it says on the tin – anxiety and stress that is caused by the dog being separated from their owner. It’s a cause of great distress to the dog, and can be dangerous to them if they try to escape to find you, and injure themselves in the process.

Why does it occur?

Dogs are social animals! Wolves have evolved to live in tightly-knit family groups (packs); as we’ve domesticated them, we’ve extended their definition of “my family” to include us. Unfortunately, that also means if we’re not around, they can feel like they’ve been abandoned; and can want to be with us all the time, becoming very distressed if prevented.

What dogs are at risk?

Fundamentally, any dog can develop separation anxiety. However, it is more likely in certain situations:

  • Dogs who actually have been abandoned or rehomed
  • Dogs with a very nervous disposition or temperament
  • Dogs who don’t have, or have lost, another “dog friend” in the household
  • Dogs living in a house where there has been substantial change – e.g. a bereavement, people moving out, children leaving for University, or other social upheaval.

Dogs living in “multi-dog” households (where they can be reassured by the presence of other dogs) seem to be at lower risk, but this isn’t always guaranteed.

How would I know if my dog was affected?

Typical signs include:

  • Dogs getting more and more upset as you leave, often showing classical distress symptoms such as increased heart rate, panting, salivating, and urinating or defecating.
  • Dogs may try and “escape” to follow you – jumping at windows, clawing at doors.
  • Howling and crying when you’re out of the house – often continuing for prolonged periods.
  • Urination and defecation in the house while you’re out.
  • Destruction of items in the house – especially those with your scent on.
  • Excessive excitement when you return – even if you’ve only been gone a few minutes.

Are there any other conditions that look similar?

Well, it’s always worth getting one of our vets to rule out medical issues, such as senile dementia or incontinence. There are also other behavioural issues that can look a little similar, such as Juvenile Destruction. The key feature, however, is that in Separation Anxiety, it doesn’t matter how long you’re gone for, the dog is equally distraught and equally elated when you get home whether it’s five minutes or five hours. A “normal” response would be for the dog to get more excited to see you the longer you were away – this isn’t the case for dogs with Separation Anxiety, as their anxiety (and consequently their relief!) is maxed out almost immediately.

How can it be managed or treated?

Punishment is almost always counterproductive in these cases, and reward-based methods are most likely to be effective. There are a range of techniques that can help, generally using counterconditioning (making being alone nice for the dog, by giving them a particular reward when, and only when, they are alone). In more severe cases desensitisation is needed, to gradually accustom them to being on their own; and in the worst cases, our vets may have to prescribe medications to give them the “headspace” to learn new ways of doing things.

We strongly recommend that you seek professional advice from us, or a professional and reputable canine behaviourist, before attempting these more complex approaches!

Can it be prevented in the first place?

Yes – it’s really useful to make sure your dog is used to being left alone for (brief!) periods from a puppy. If they can learn during their socialisation period (roughly 6-16 weeks) that being alone is OK, they are much less likely to have problems later in life.

If you think your dog may be showing signs of separation anxiety, please give us a ring! We can give you advice on managing milder forms of the condition, or refer you to a qualified canine behaviourist.