Dog Separation Anxiety: What It Is, Why It Happens, and How to Treat It
The pandemic has brought us closer to our dogs than ever before. In the last year, we've spent nearly every waking and sleeping moment within a few feet of our furry companions—a routine that's become comfortable in its familiarity. But as more states initiate reopening plans, it seems like our "dog-days" are slowly and surely coming to an end.
While the inevitable return to normalcy is a reason for celebration, we can't help but worry about how it will affect our dogs. They are creatures of habit, after all. And after many months of becoming used to our constant presence, the break in their newfound routine (in other words, our absence) might trigger separation anxiety, which is an issue that's as real for our canines as it is for us.
What Is Separation Anxiety?
According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), separation anxiety is the state in which "your dog exhibits extreme stress from the time you leave him alone until you return." While separation anxiety is common among dogs, the pandemic has added an extra layer of stress, especially in households where pet owners aren't home often, making strategies for managing the problem harder to execute.
Indeed, this transition period is difficult for both you and your dog, but fortunately, it's not an issue without resolve. Here is how pet owners can identify the signs and symptoms of separation anxiety in their dogs and overcome it successfully.
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Your Dog
The signs and symptoms of separation anxiety can manifest in several ways—and, more often than not, surface simultaneously. Among the ways it can manifest, according to veterinarians:
- Urinating or defecating in the house
- Destroying furniture or furnishings
- Barking or whining
If you notice that your dog exhibits one of these symptoms, but only once in a while, monitor your pet more closely to see if it persists. But if it shows multiple symptoms at once, and every time you leave or are about to leave the house, it may be experiencing separation anxiety. Other signs to watch out for in your dog are aggression or persistent attempts to escape confinement.
Aggression and attempts to escape its confinement are among the most severe symptoms of dog anxiety. Aggression can lead to unpleasant, sometimes harmful, situations for people or other animals in the household, whereas persistent attempts to escape can put the dog in harm's way. Your pet may injure itself when trying to break free or run into trouble if it strays too far away from home.
Why Your Dog Has Separation Anxiety
Now that you know the signs and symptoms of dog separation anxiety, you should understand what may cause it in the first place. There are many reasons why a dog might experience this issue. At times, separation anxiety is caused by an abrupt shift in their routine. The AKC says this includes "a change in schedule, a move to a new house, or the sudden absence of a family member." Other times, it may be due to a medical condition.
Note: If you suspect your dog's separation anxiety is because of an underlying medical issue, this will require an intervention from a trusted veterinarian. Your vet will be able to identify what the problem is and, as a result, treat your dog's anxiety.
How to Treat Your Dog's Separation Anxiety: 4 Ways
While it's always important to seek out a vet's advice for your dog's anxiety (or any behavioral issue, for that matter), you can also implement a few strategies to help manage it at home. Below, 3 ways to assuage your dog's stress.
1. Train Your Dog to Become Used to Your Absence
If your dog becomes anxious when you leave the house, whether for 10 minutes or several hours, let it know that you will be back. To do this, start by leaving your home a little bit at a time. Take a short walk without your pup, and if it responds well, increase the length of time away the next day and then, a few days later, until your dog becomes used to your absence.
Since your dog thrives on routine, you should adjust its feeding, walking, and play-times according to your new schedule. If your dog still shows signs of distress despite this, you may also want to teach your dog that your absence has its perks. Leave your dog with its favorite toys or a treat, like a Kong filled with peanut butter or a bone that's safe to nibble on while you're away.
2. Stimulate Your Dog Physically and Mentally
Making sure your dog is physically and mentally stimulated will ensure a peaceful transition when you are ready to spend more time away from home. A dog that exercises regularly is not only happier but also less prone to being destructive. Just keep in mind that the amount of physical activity needed will differ from dog to dog but ultimately depends on their age, breed, and activity level.
Aside from physical exercise, you must stimulate your dog mentally. Interactive activities provide dogs with a job to do. A puzzle feeder that makes your dog work for its meals or a snuffle mat sprinkled with treats will simultaneously keep their mind off of you leaving and tire them out. By keeping your dog both physically and mentally stimulated, it's more likely to settle down when you leave.
3. Treat Your Dog's Anxiety With Medication
While mild separation anxiety may be resolved with proper training and sufficient physical and mental exercise (see #1 and #2), dogs with moderate-to-severe cases might require more help. Fortunately, there is medication, both pharmaceutical and homeopathic, for this. Dogs that are older or have abandonment issues may significantly benefit from taking medication.
If you're considering putting your dog on a medication regimen, a trusted veterinarian will be able to prescribe something appropriate for your pet. But if you want to take the homeopathic route, there are many options on the market that you can purchase without a prescription. Over-the-counter medication, like calming aids with L-theanine or L-tryptophan, is said to alleviate dog anxiety, as well as CBD oil.
NOTE: When using homeopathic remedies, speak to a vet beforehand to ensure they will be safe and effective for your dog. As with any medication, potential risks are involved—your vet will help you mitigate these.
4. Speak to a Professional
There are many ways to prevent your dog's separation anxiety, but sometimes, it is unavoidable. If the issue persists despite your best intentions and efforts, you might want to seek the advice of a veterinary behaviorist or trainer. They would know how to best deal with the problem and prevent your dog's behavior from worsening. With time and the right plan, you may be able to reduce your dog's anxiety.