How to Manage Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment Strategies
Author: Integrative Veterinarian Dr. Lindsey Wendt, DVM CVA CVFT CCRT
The COVID-19 pandemic changed lives around the world, but one of the seemingly positive impacts was on the pet adoption industry. The ASPCA reported that LA and New York at one point saw a 70% increase in animal placement in foster homes compared to the same time the year prior. Many people found themselves adopting and fostering dogs for a variety of reasons- whether it was for companionship during isolation, or as a form of stress and anxiety relief for those that were experiencing difficult transitions in their daily patterns and lives.
As time has passed and people have found themselves resuming “normal” pre-pandemic activities and daily patterns, there has been a sharp increase in the number of cases of dogs with separation anxiety which has become an epidemic of its own.
Separation anxiety in dogs is a behavioral disorder characterized by excessive fear or distress when a dog is separated from their owner or from individuals they are closely bonded with.
Symptoms of separation anxiety
- destructive behaviors such as clawing at entrances/exits, chewing on inappropriate surfaces (furniture, personal belongings) and digging
- excessive vocalizations (barking, howling or whining)
- house soiling (urinating or defecating in the house)
- Self-injury (excessive licking, chewing or biting at themselves, eating non-food items that can cause intestinal upset or blockages, head shaking, tail chasing or other obsessive compulsive behavior)
If left untreated, separation anxiety can lead to a breakdown in the bond between the dog and their pet parent, and can even result in a dog being surrendered to a shelter. Luckily, there are several effective strategies for managing separation anxiety in dogs and creating a more comfortable and relaxed environment for your furry family member.
How to treat separation anxiety
1. First, understand the symptoms and make sure that there isn’t an underlying health condition that is contributing to the symptoms that are seen. Separation anxiety is most common in young dogs and older dogs for different reasons.
a. For puppies, separation anxiety may be more common because they have not yet developed the coping skills to deal with being away from their mother or littermates. Puppies should ideally be kept with their mother and littermates until they are at least 8 weeks old, and preferably until 10-12 weeks of age. This is a critical socialization period during which puppies learn important social and behavioral skills from their mother and littermates. Additionally, puppies may be more prone to anxiety due to lack of socialization or exposure to new experiences, which can make them more vulnerable to stress.
b. Older dogs are another population that are more prone to separation anxiety due to changes in their environment, medical conditions, or age-related cognitive decline. For example, if an older dog has trouble with their mobility, vision or hearing, it can lead to them being more anxious when they are alone. As dogs age, they will often experience changes in their circadian rhythm and sleep patterns, which can affect their mood and lead to anxiety
2. Develop a treatment plan- Several strategies that have been shown to be effective in treating separation anxiety include behavior modification, medication, and environmental management.
Behavior modification is one of the most effective strategies for managing separation anxiety in dogs. To start, you need to provide the dog with a safe and secure space that they associate with positivity. This will be different for every dog, but the most common spaces are either a crate or designated room of the house. Leave your dog with something to provide comfort (a favorite toy or blanket, pheromone products to help with appeasement, etc). Once you establish a safe environment, gradually increase the amount of time that the dog is left alone, starting with just a few minutes and gradually working up to longer periods of time. You can also use positive reinforcement to reward your dog for calm and relaxed behavior while you're away, such as offering treats in a puzzle toy or snuffle mat. This is often a great thing to do right as you are about to leave your space. Avoid making a big fuss when leaving or arriving home. Keep your greetings low-key and don't give your dog too much attention as that can worsen their anxiety.
3. Pharmaceutical medication- In some cases, medication may be necessary to help reduce the dog's anxiety, but this is most effective when paired with a broader treatment plan that includes behavioral modification and environmental management. Many of these medications take 4-6 weeks to take effect and can have intestinal side effects like decreased appetite, vomiting or diarrhea. Make sure to speak with your veterinarian about what is best for your own fur kids.
4. Supplements- there are certain dietary supplements like ashwagandha, l-theanine and rhodiola rosea that have anecdotally been helpful adjuncts in the management of anxiety. According to Linda Aronson, DVM, who published a study in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the sedative properties of melatonin have also been shown to be helpful in treating separation anxiety in dogs, as well as stress from noise like fireworks, thunderstorms or other noise phobias.
Coping with separation anxiety
In dogs, this can be challenging, but there are several strategies that can help. One important step is to establish a consistent routine for your dog, with regular feeding times, exercise, and playtime. This can help your dog feel more secure and comfortable, and can reduce their stress levels- even dogs do well with structure! It's also important to provide your dog with plenty of mental and physical stimulation, such as interactive toys, training sessions, and daily walks or runs.
It's important to seek professional help if your dog's separation anxiety is severe or persistent. A professional dog trainer or behaviorist can provide additional guidance and support in managing your dog's anxiety, and can work with you to develop a customized treatment plan that meets your dog's individual needs.
Separation anxiety in dogs can be a challenging issue to manage, but with patience, consistency, and a structured approach, you can help your furry companion feel more relaxed and comfortable when left alone. By identifying the symptoms of separation anxiety, developing a treatment plan that includes behavior modification, medication, and environmental management, establishing a consistent routine, providing plenty of mental and physical stimulation, and seeking professional help if needed, you can help your dog overcome their anxiety and strengthen the bond between you and your furry friend.
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