Separation anxiety begins innocently enough—a little whining when you leave, an overly enthusiastic reunion—but such anxiety can become a disruptive and potentially dangerous situation that negatively affects the pet-owner relationship.

Separation anxiety’s subtle appearance is easy to ignore or misinterpret, and frequently leads to misunderstandings about its cause and treatment. To help dogs—and their owners—break free from separation anxiety, WesVet Animal Hospital is separating fact from fiction, by dissecting several popular misconceptions.

Fiction: My dog is acting out and needs more training

Fact: While training or confinement may be warranted, new or unusual behavior your dog is demonstrating could be caused by a medical condition. Always have your dog examined at WesVet Animal Hospital, to ensure that pain or illness aren’t causing your dog’s inappropriate behavior. Only after medical causes have been ruled out can a behavioral issue be suspected.

If your dog is deemed healthy, consider when the inappropriate behavior occurs:

  •  While you are at home — Separation anxiety is an intense reaction in response to an owner’s absence. If the behavior is happening when you are home, insufficient training or exercise may be to blame.
  • Before you leave and while you are away — Dogs with separation anxiety are typically upset before their owner leaves and during their absence, but behave normally while the owner is home. Medical and behavioral therapy is necessary to resolve their condition.

Fiction: My dog is spiteful about being left alone

Fact: Separation anxiety behaviors are not vengeful acts, but your dog’s attempt to reduce or relieve intense emotional distress. Unfortunately, canine stress responses can be destructive, and may include: 

  • House soiling
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Vocalizing 
  • Digging
  • Chewing
  • Escape attempts

Do not punish your dog for these behaviors. Negative reactions will only compound your dog’s anxiety, and may lead to worsening behavior. Dogs with moderate to severe separation anxiety need medical intervention, so schedule an appointment at WesVet Animal Hospital. 

Fiction: I can manage my dog’s separation anxiety by working from home and taking them with me when I go out

Fact: Untreated separation anxiety does not improve or go away on its own, but actually worsens with time. Accommodating your dog’s behavior by minimizing any separation can intensify clinical signs, and result in disease progression. Untreated separation anxiety commonly progresses to generalized anxiety (i.e., a continual hypersensitive and hyperreactive state) and noise phobia (i.e., an overreaction to loud or sudden noises, characterized by intense panic).

Fiction: Dogs with separation anxiety need to be crated

Fact: While crates can be helpful, they aren’t always the answer for managing dogs with separation anxiety. If your dog doesn’t enjoy being crated, or hasn’t been crated since puppyhood, the confinement can trigger claustrophobic reactions, and intensify anxious behavior. Crated or confined dogs are commonly injured attempting to escape.

Safe confinement plays an important role in managing and treating separation anxiety, but must be appropriate and comfortable for the dog. Restricting your dog to a single pet-proof room is often sufficient for dogs who don’t tolerate being crated.

Fiction: I caused my dog’s separation anxiety

Fact: The reason why only some dogs develop separation anxiety is uncertain. Although teaching puppies to be alone is important, separation anxiety may have a genetic component that makes some dogs overly attached to their owners, no matter how much training or positive association takes place. 

Major life changes can trigger separation anxiety signs at any age, and can include:

  • Death, loss, or human family member absence
  • Death or absence of a fellow pet
  • New human family member or pet
  • Relocation
  • Schedule changes
  • Traumatic event (e.g., natural disaster, auto accident, missing pet)

When undergoing a home transition, consider your pet’s perspective—what may be a minor adjustment for you can feel life-altering for them. Dogs thrive on predictability and routine, so no matter what’s happening in your home, try to keep your dog’s daily schedule consistent. Although separation anxiety that stems from a life change is often temporary, some cases can be permanent. If anxious signs progress, or do not resolve after a few weeks to months, contact your veterinarian.

Fiction: Anti-anxiety medications will make my dog a zombie

Fact: Many popular anti-anxiety medications, such as tricyclic antidepressants and serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), work by increasing the amount of serotonin and norepinephrine, mood-improving neurotransmitters in the brain. While these medications effectively lower pet anxiety without altering personality or energy levels, they can take several weeks before improvement is noted. 

Benzodiazepine drugs have a faster effect, but work by depressing the pet’s central nervous system, which causes mild sedation. If fast relief is necessary to treat the patient, mildly sedative drugs may be used in conjunction with antidepressants and SSRIs, but can be tapered after signs improve.

Your veterinarian will determine the proper medication regimen for your dog, but be aware that medication must be used in conjunction with behavior modification to treat separation anxiety. 

Separation anxiety is an emotional and complex disorder, and treatment requires patience, commitment, and veterinary guidance. With a better understanding of why separation anxiety occurs, what the problem looks like, and how to respond, you’ll be more successful at helping your dog learn new and positive ways to cope with your absence.

If your dog is exhibiting abnormal or anxious behavior, contact WesVet Animal Hospital to schedule an appointment.