Lately, the cases that have really got my attention are the dogs that destroy the house or hurt themselves when the owners leave. These dogs have been suffering from a condition called separation anxiety. I have had several severe cases lately and am beginning to think it’s more common of a problem than I imagined.

Clinical Signs: Some owners report that they come home to damaged doorways, carpets, plants, or furniture. Some find that their dog has started defecating in the house. Others tell of finding their pacing and panting dog (and parts of their home) covered in drool; in fact one dog’s constant drool caused the metal covers on the floor vents to rust. Others get complaints from the neighbors that their dog barks or cries the entire time they’re gone. In the most severe cases, the dog will do anything to break out of the house, crate, or kennel; these dogs break teeth, scrape their muzzles, break glass, and, sometimes, get hit by cars when their escape attempts are successful.

In many cases, the dog does not wait until the owners leave to become anxious. The owner’s routine of preparing to leave, including showering, getting dressed, or picking up briefcase or keys, can start the panic. Some dogs will refuse breakfast on days they know the owner will leave. Others will follow the owner around, whining. Still others withdraw and cannot be coaxed into interactions.

Cause: Separation anxiety can have a gradual onset as the dog matures – or can flare up suddenly. Sometimes owners can point to a specific experience, like someone moving out or a unusually loud event, that appeared to trigger the problem. In reality, however, the overwhelming majority of these dogs have always been somewhat anxious, whether or not the anxiety was noticeable. The core reason for their anxiety is, as always, some combination of genetics and experience. Anxious puppies often grow to be anxious dogs. But, not all anxious dogs were anxious puppies.

It is also important to note that dogs that suffer from separation anxiety have a greater-than-average chance of developing noise sensitivities or phobias. This can be limited to the classic triggers, like thunder or fireworks. But, owners also report fearful reactions to power tools, crackling fires, food processors, and other everyday sounds in their dogs with separation anxiety.

Diagnosis: The determination that a dog has separation anxiety is made based on history and, if possible, a video recording of the dog while the owners are not home. Other possibilities for destruction, barking, defecation, and other signs of mild separation anxiety can be attributed to boredom (especially in an energetic or focused breed of dog), illness, incomplete housetraining, or a reaction to loud or arousing stimuli outside the house. But, if the video shows a dog that is pacing, panting, vocalizing, or being destructive immediately after the owner leaves and for some significant percentage of the time the owner is gone, separation anxiety is diagnosed.

Treatment: Unless the clinical signs are very mild, the patient requires medication in addition to behavior modification. There are two medications currently licensed for dogs with separation anxiety; the first is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (akin to Prozac) and the other is a tricyclic antidepressant. Clinical trials show improvement of over 60% of dogs on each of these medications. If one medication does not work in a given dog, the other might. In the case where neither drug has the desired effect, a veterinarian can prescribe similar human medications not actually licensed for dogs in an off-label fashion. Unwanted effects of these medications are usually mild, and include GI upset and reduced appetite.

The big downside of these medications is that they can take 3-8 weeks to take full effect. In the meantime, the owner has a destructive mess of a dog that they feel they can’t leave alone. There are several possible strategies for bridging the gap until medications can help. First, the dog can go do doggie daycare or a friend’s house when the owner leaves. Second, the owner can try working from home for a few weeks. Finally, the dog can be given a short-acting medication in the same class as Valium and Xanax. In some dogs, however, these medications cause increased agitation and cannot be used; in others, they allow the dog to be calm and relaxed when the owners are gone.

In addition to (not in place of) medications, the owner can use other calming agents. These may include a dog appeasing pheromone collar or room diffuser, lavender, anxiety wraps, calming music, etc.

Once the right combination of medication and other tools is identified, and the dog becomes calmer, the owners can begin the work of behavior modification. This can include:

  • teaching the dog to be more comfortable being away from the owners when they are home (how can you expect to leave the house when your dog won’t let you go to the bathroom without him?)
  • desensitizing the dog to cues that the owner is leaving
  • desensitizing the dog to the owner leaving for increasing periods of time (starting with seconds, working up to minutes, before attempting hours.

If the dog also suffers from noise phobias, he can be desensitized to those, as well.

With proper diagnosis and treatment, many dogs will improve. Some will need to remain on medications indefinitely; but the owners prefer this to the terrible situation that existed before treatment.

Separation anxiety in any form should be taken very seriously. Mild cases can progress. Severe cases can be life threatening. All cases are extremely disruptive for the owners, who typically feel some combination of anger, resentment, guilt, and fear for their pet. Proper diagnosis, by a licensed veterinarian that has experience with separation anxiety, is crucial to solving the problem.