Separation anxiety in pets


Separation anxiety can be both heartbreaking and infuriating; heartbreaking to see a pet so fearful and infuriating because anxiety is often acted out through destructive behaviour, like chewed furniture, torn cushions, urinating in the house and more.

But before losing your temper it’s important to remember that this is not typical naughtiness. Separation anxiety causes extreme stress and will affect your dog’s well-being unless properly dealt with.

Separation anxiety is like a panic attack

Humans are no strangers to panic attacks. Sweaty palms, fast heart rate, inability to breathe properly, dry mouth are all symptoms of a panic attack which happens when fear causes the body to flood with stress hormones. This same hormone response happens with dogs only their symptoms range from mild – like pacing or whining – to extreme anxiety where they became destructive in their desperation to find their missing owners.

What causes it?

There are many reasons why this could happen but these are the common ones

  • Changes in the family dynamic (death of a family member or divorce)
  • Changes in lifestyle (rehoming or moving from the country to the city)
  • Changes in routine (pet owner transitioning from a part-time to a full-time position)

However, it’s also possible for a dog that hasn’t had any trauma in their past to develop separation anxiety, perhaps due to an underlying genetic predisposition to the condition.

There may be a medical problem

Many of the behaviours that are attributed to separation anxiety could also be medical or behavioural.

For example, excessive drooling might be caused by a fractured tooth or nausea, barking could be a response to a territorial threat, and accidents might mean that the dog isn’t fully house-trained or has a urinary tract infection.

If a dog displays any symptoms usually attributed to separation anxiety, it is important to have the dog checked over by a vet first to rule out potential illnesses.

Signs of separation anxiety

Dogs left alone may:

• pace like zoo animals trapped in a cage

• bark and howl

• stop eating

• destroy the TV remote, cushions, rugs, even sofas and windows

• even dogs that are housetrained may eliminate in the house, or develop diarrhoea

• excessive drooling

• try to escape, injuring themselves in the process

Cats left alone may:

• vocalise excessively

• urinate or defecate outside of the litter tray, ie the owner’s bed

• stop eating or drinking

How to help your pet

Unfortunately there is no quick fix but the sooner you get help, the better for you both.

First off is a visit to the vet to rule out medical issues. Ask your vet for a referral to a professional veterinary behaviourist. They will not only assist with establishing the cause and work with you on fixing the problem, but they can also dispense medication if the case calls for it.

Effective treatment of separation anxiety can feel overwhelming. It’s a slow process made more difficult by the fact that sometimes progress comes at a literal pace of one second at a time but remember that for your pet, stress is severely affecting his health and happiness and it is up to you to help them find it.

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