Have you ever returned home to find your living room trashed or your neighbor complaining about the relentless barking while you were gone? If so, you’ve likely felt that all too familiar feeling of frustration that can only come from dealing with separation anxiety in dogs.
We love spending time with our canine companions, but they don’t always behave the same way when we aren’t around. Separation anxiety in dogs is a very real and potentially dangerous struggle faced by many dog owners. Let’s look at its causes to help you better understand what you can do to keep your dog safe!
If one good thing came from the global challenges this past year, it was the fact that many people were able to spend more time at home enjoying the company of our furry friends. Our dogs were spoiled with more attention, more playtime, more walks, and more treats.
With many pet parents now returning to work and attending events outside their house, a new problem has come to light. As our dogs face the idea of being alone at home, many are experiencing stress and anxiety at their “new normal”. This is especially true for those that were adopted during this time and have never had to stay home alone for an extended time before now.
One of the most common problems reported by both new and experienced pet parents is destructive behavior when a dog is left home alone.
Not only is this frustrating for us, as pet parents, seeing our home and our belongings broken and destroyed, but it can also lead to serious injuries or health complications for our dogs. Each year, veterinarians deal with dogs that have hurt themselves in some way while trying to break out of the house as well as dogs that have ingested something that they shouldn’t have while home alone.
Separation anxiety can be costly (both in terms of our belongings and vet bills) and, in some cases, could even turn fatal.
For this reason, it is important to learn the warning signs of separation anxiety in dogs and what we can do to keep our pups safe. This article focuses on the signs and causes. Check out part two of this series for more on how to prevent, manage, and treat the problem accordingly.
What Is Separation Anxiety?
The term “Separation Anxiety” refers to the high level of stress or anxiety that some dogs exhibit when being left at home alone. The intensity of these feelings can vary from mild stress to extreme anxiety and panic.
This isn’t your dog giving you “the eyes” as you leave the house or letting out a little whimper that leaves you feeling bad throughout the day. Instead, it’s an ongoing struggle that continues to plague your dog from the moment that you leave (or even a little before) right up until you return home again.
In recent studies, experts have discovered that there are four main categories of separation anxiety based on a dog’s behaviors. Recognizing the category of separation anxiety that you are dealing with will help to direct your treatment efforts.
The categories include:
- A focus on escaping or getting away from something in the house
- A desire to get to something outside of the house
- A reaction to external noises or activities
- A form of boredom when left alone
By tracking your dog’s behavior, you can then determine which category(ies) they would fall under. If your dog is reacting out of boredom, the solution would rely on finding ways to provide entertainment while you’re gone. If, however, your dog is showing anxiety in response to external noises, you will have to address that fear.
Causes of Separation Anxiety in Dogs
There is no one recognized cause of separation anxiety in dogs. Instead, experts point to a wide variety of factors including a dog’s past experiences (such as abuse), the relationship that a dog has with its owner, aspects of the dog’s temperament, and even predisposition for separation anxiety. A dog struggling with separation anxiety may stem from one or a combination of these factors.
Dogs that have experienced abuse or neglect in the past may be more likely to experience separation anxiety due to those past experiences. For example, a dog that was abandoned may fear each time that its new owner leaves that it will be abandoned once again. Separation anxiety is more likely to start in young puppies. However, it can also present in older dogs, especially those that possess other high-risk factors.
Rescue dog separation anxiety is a common occurrence for those that adopt dogs who have lived through difficult situations.
Some dogs will develop separation anxiety in response to a major or traumatic life change, such as moving to a new house, death or absence in the family (including divorce, a child going away for school, etc.), or a major change to their usual routine.
Separation anxiety is also more common in dogs that have never been left alone earlier in life, as they aren’t aware of how to react when their owner isn’t nearby. This has become a common struggle for those that are raising “quarantine dogs” or dogs adopted during the recent quarantine and lockdown periods.
Signs Your Dog Has Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety can manifest itself in a wide variety of different ways depending on the dog. This ranges from subtle signs like pacing or whining right up to fully destructive and potentially dangerous behaviors.
The earlier that you recognize these behaviors in your dog, the easier it will be to address and, hopefully, treat. If you are dealing with severe separation anxiety in dogs, you may have to consider implementing additional safety measures to keep your dog from harming itself or others in the household.
The most common separation anxiety in dogs symptoms include:
- Pacing and uneasiness
- Excessive drooling and/or panting
- Not eating regardless of how long you may be gone
- Housebroken dogs having “accidents” in the house
- Whining, barking, howling or otherwise vocalizing
- Chewing or destroying objects including (but not limited to) furniture, household objects, door frames, walls, and window sills
- Ingesting non-food options around the home such as eating clothing, bedding, and houseplants
- Coprophagia: dogs that have accidents and then eat their own excrement
- Attempts to escape the home
- Overly excited or hysterical greetings when you return home
It is important to note that these behaviors only occur when your dog is left home alone. If these are ongoing behaviors, they may be the sign of a different problem altogether.
The best way to prevent, manage, and treat your dog’s separation anxiety will depend on which of the four main categories of anxiety their behavior falls under.
You may be thinking: “My dog has separation anxiety. Now what?” Check out part two of our separation anxiety series!
Do you have a dog who deals with separation anxiety? Or have you had one in the past? If so, let us know about your experience in the comments below.
About the Author: Britt Kascjak is a proud pet mom, sharing her heart (and her home) with her “pack” which includes her husband John, their 3 dogs – Daviana, Indiana, and Lucifer – and their 2 cats – Pippen and Jinx. She has been active in the animal rescue community for over 15 years, volunteering, fostering, and advocating for organizations across Canada and the US. In her free time, she enjoys traveling around the country camping, hiking, and canoeing with her pets.