Separation anxiety in dogs is a real thing. If your dog shows signs of distress when you're gone, you'll want to nip this issue in the bud so you can leave the house again without feeling guilty.
To help you understand what you can do for your dog’s anxiety, Pawp spoke with Dr. Heather Venkat, DVM, MPH, DACVPM, a companion animal veterinarian with VIP Puppies, who gave a few helpful tips.
There are a variety of tips and tricks that you can utilize to help reduce the separation anxiety that your dog is experiencing. Of course, if you find that it persists despite your best efforts, you can certainly reach out to a trusted veterinarian and see what they have to say. A vet might be able to provide insight about your pet because they know them personally.
Although separation anxiety might sound like a trite excuse for your dog’s behavior, the reality is that separation anxiety is an actual medical issue that many dogs face on a daily basis. This is not a result of disobedience or spite.
According to the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois, about 20 to 40% of dogs suffer from some form of anxiety.
Separation anxiety is a different type of anxiety, however. This is characterized by how your dog acts surrounding their pet parent's departure. This specific type of anxiety doesn’t have a timeline and can impact different dogs in unique ways. This is "characterized by a dog being anxious when they are left alone, even for short periods of time," says Dr. Venkat.
If you have adopted a rescue dog, maybe you have wondered what your pup experienced before they found their way home to you. Behaviors such as being inconsolable after loud noises or avoiding things like balls or balloons tossed in the air may all have you wondering how your dog was treated when they were born or young.
Although it's impossible to get these answers, Dr. Venkat assures that dogs from animal shelters or other rescue organizations are not more prone to separation anxiety than other dogs.
"Separation anxiety is linked to a genetic predisposition, such as what kind of breed of dog you have," she tells Pawp. “Huskies and border collies, for example, can be more prone to separation anxiety, but any dog can develop it because dogs bond very easily to their families.”
Of course, just because your dog is not a breed that is especially prone to separation anxiety does not mean they cannot—or will not—experience it. The reality is that separation anxiety is a relatively common problem, so if your dog is experiencing it, don’t feel like you did anything wrong as a pet parent. Instead, simply learn more about your pet’s condition and garner a more robust understanding of ways that you can help them beat their anxiety and distress.
If your dog tends to be on their best behavior when you are present but rips up your sofa every time you leave your home, there’s a good chance they're struggling with separation anxiety. These feelings of isolation can be difficult for dogs to manage.
When left alone, signs of separation anxiety in dogs could include:
Escaping confined areas
Elimination problems like defecating/urinating
These behaviors can be extremely discouraging and upsetting. You might worry that your dog will behave like this forever and that all of your furniture will be destroyed as a result. There is some good news, though. You will not have to deal with your dog’s separation anxiety forever. There are ways to help your dog feel more secure when left alone.
Of course, there are some instances where taking your dog to the vet to treat their separation anxiety becomes completely necessary. If they're becoming too destructive or are posing a hazard to their own health, you can bring them to the vet to gain some insight on how to solve the problem. This is especially necessary if your dog is escaping their crate or yard routinely.
Separation anxiety is treated with a mix of behavior modification, training, supplements, and sometimes even medication.
The first way to treat your dog’s separation anxiety is with behavioral training. Dr. Venkat says to make sure you don’t make a big deal whenever you leave or arrive at your home. As tempting as it may be to shower your dog with kisses before you’re going to be gone all day, now’s the time to be strong for your pup’s sake.
You don’t want to alert them that something is about to change; avoid departure cues whenever possible. Instead, remain calm and quickly slip out of the house. By not making a show out of your departure, you can help your dog combat their separation anxiety.
Of course, there are also some items that you can utilize to help you achieve that. Behavioral training can also be done with the help of interactive, dispensing toys.
“These toys help distract the dog from having separation anxiety because they can occupy themselves instead of causing destruction or worrying about when their owner will return home,” says Dr. Venkat. “Anything that can occupy a dog’s mind is beneficial. Puzzle feeders, Kongs stuffed with pet-safe peanut butter, and bob-a-lots are great toys for lonely dogs,” she says.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of misconceptions about crate training. Sometimes, people think putting a dog in a crate is wrong or damaging to the dog. This could not be further from the truth.
Crate training is not some cruel and unusual punishment but rather caters to your dog’s natural instinct of wanting a safe, comfortable, and secure environment to call their own.
Crate training can be beneficial for dogs with separation anxiety because they can learn to self-soothe while you’re not there by going into a place they associate with safety.
Start by crate training your dog for a few hours at a time while you’re home with them so they can adapt to it. Use plenty of positive reinforcement and slowly work up to your dog spending longer periods of time in the crate. Dogs thrive with consistent routines.
Crate training will take some time, so don’t worry if it doesn't seem like it's working right away. Follow through with the process, and you can see a tremendous difference in your dog and their distress response.
There are a few natural supplements and powders you can try to calm your dog down before seeking out a prescription.
“Supplements containing probiotics, lemon balm, chamomile, valerian root, passion flower, hemp, L-theanine, and/or L-tryptophan can all be helpful," says Dr. Venkat.
Supplements like probiotics help improve your dog’s gut health, which is tied to their brain health, says Dr. Venkat. Therefore, the idea is that by improving your dog’s gut health, they’ll become calmer.
“Fluoxetine or clomipramine are very common medications prescribed for a dog with separation anxiety and work as antidepressants by increasing serotonin levels in their brain, which better balances their mood,” she adds.
Giving your dog medication for their separation anxiety is a deeply personal decision. Your vet can help you decide if it is the right path to go down for you and your pet. Ultimately, your goal is to help ensure your dog is not suffering from this anxiety. If medication can help, you might consider it as a way to reduce your dog’s separation anxiety.
Medication alone is usually not enough. When used in conjunction with a behavior modification plan, it's very possible to treat canine separation anxiety.
Talking to a vet should be the first step you take once you notice that your dog is suffering from separation anxiety. A veterinarian who understands your pet will better be able to suggest ways that you can help them—they can provide more behavioral tricks and make sure there aren’t any other present medical issues.