How to Handle Separation Anxiety in Dogs
If your furry friend unleashes destruction upon your home when left alone, he may suffer from dog separation anxiety. Similar to humans, dogs can develop separation anxiety after experiencing loss or dramatic life changes. A nervous dog with anxiety may urinate, defecate, bark, chew or try to escape. It’s important to diagnose and treat separation anxiety in dogs early. If left untreated, anxiety can lead to home destruction and self-injury.
What Causes Dogs to Develop Separation Anxiety?
There are multiple factors that can contribute to separation anxiety in dogs. It’s widely believed that loss of an important person or group of people in a dog’s life can lead to separation anxiety, whether it’s caused by a death in the family or a family member moving away. Changes to your dog’s routine—like a new schedule or home—can cause him to develop the disorder. Studies show that it is much more common for dogs adopted from shelters to suffer from behavioral issues like dog separation anxiety than dogs who have been kept by a single family throughout their lives.
Diagnosing Separation Anxiety
Dogs with anxiety will become agitated when witnessing you preparing to leave. Your dog may become anxious or depressed at your departure, or whenever you are not present. In some cases, your dog may even attempt to prevent you from leaving.
Common Symptoms of Dog Separation Anxiety
- Urinating and defecating
- Barking and howling
- Chewing, digging and destroying things
- Escape attempts
- Coprophagia (eating stool)
When diagnosing separation anxiety in dogs, it’s important to rule out other medical problems first. There are many reasons why your dog might display symptoms of behavioral issues. The symptoms of puppy separation anxiety are often similar to those of incontinence, new medications, over-excitement, juvenile destruction and urine marking.
Reducing Separation Anxiety
Counterconditioning with Treats or Toys
To address puppy separation anxiety, you’ll need to teach your anxious puppy to enjoy—or at least tolerate—being left at home alone. If your dog is experiencing mild separation anxiety, counterconditioning may reduce or resolve the problem. Counterconditioning is the process of changing an animal’s behavior from fearful, anxious or aggressive reactions to relaxed by developing an association between being left alone and something positive, like a delicious treat. Dog chews with calming formulas like VetriScience Composure Behavioral Health Bite-Sized Dog Chews are a great option. Using interactive dog bowls and toys filled with treats, like the KONG Classic Dog Toy, is another way to reward your pet and reduce anxiety while you’re away. Slow feeders like these stimulate your pup’s mind, but they also ensure he won’t consume his reward too quickly.
If your pup has moderate to severe dog separation anxiety, a more gradual approach is necessary. Start with short separations that won’t cause anxiety, while gradually increasing the duration of the separations over the course of several weeks. “To [help your pet] feel more comfortable being away from you, leave often and early for very short periods of time and praise him upon your return—given he behaved appropriately,” says Dr. Jim Lowe, DVM, resident veterinarian at Tomlyn pet health products. Patience is key, according to Dr. Stephanie Liff, DVM, Pure Paws Veterinary Clinic. “It is important to be patient and work on deconditioning exercises, so the pet stops associating your routine of leaving with the departure,” says Dr. Liff. Calm your pup while you’re away with the gentle embrace of a ThunderShirt designed to help reduce anxiety. Its gentle, constant pressure reduces anxiety, fear and over-excitement.
For younger dogs that need more help, or older dogs that are more set in their ways, Dr. Lowe suggests a calming supplement to help them cope. Look to dog supplements or chews containing chamomile or L-tryptophan to soothe your pet, like “Formulated without drugs, [they] calm naturally, support balanced behavior, relaxation, and reduced hyperactivity without causing excitation or sedation,” says Dr. Lowe. L-tryptophan is found in many plant and animal proteins, and is used to address symptoms of insomnia, sleep apnea, depression and anxiety. In dogs, L-tryptophan has a fast-acting calming effect.
Providing a Playmate
Adding a second canine to your family can be helpful in reducing dog separation anxiety in some cases, but not all. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell if a playmate will help reduce your pet’s separation anxiety until the new pet has been introduced. There are cases where adding another pet has made a dramatic improvement in reducing anxiety. “In single-dog households, a second canine companion might be helpful, but the added responsibilities have to be considered.” It’s important to consider the financial and emotional implications of taking on an additional pet before making the decision to grow your family for the sake of your pet.
In some cases, background noise can help your pup manage separation anxiety. “In mild cases, playing music and leaving the TV on can help with the stress of the human leaving,” suggests Dr. Liff. By leaving the television or radio on, you can mimic the sounds your dog is used to when you are home. This can help reduce the anxiety he feels when you are away. Dr. Lowe agrees, “Keep your dog busy in your absence with toys and ambient noise.”
Dog separation anxiety is a serious but common condition. If left untreated, your pup could cause significant damage to your home, or themselves. The good news is that with patience, understanding and the right tools, you can reduce your dog’s symptoms, or even adjust their behavior permanently.
Michelle McKinley is dedicated to creating informative pieces that help pet parents train, care for and love their cuddly companions. She operates a digital ad agency providing content to enterprise and small businesses. As a writer for Chewy, Michelle delights in sharing tips and techniques that strengthen the relationship between owner and pet. She works with experienced veterinarians, knowledgeable pet behaviorists and pet brands to bring the best in pet to readers.