Panic! That is what our pets feel when they are plagued with separation anxiety. It is thought that 20% of pets in the US suffer from this type of anxiety disorder. Dogs become attached to the person they spend the most time with and whom they are most comfortable with. Our pets have an amazing ability to read and recognize certain cues such as gathering of keys, putting on shoes or a coat, or picking up a work bag; and they know these cues correlate with their favorite person(people) leaving. This type of association is called classical conditioning and is beyond our dog's control. When the panic response kicks in, these dogs can become destructive, vocal and distressed.
We don't know exactly why some pets develop this anxiety and others do not - research has shown a propensity for those pets coming out of a shelter/rescue situation or a rehoming situation. The feeling of abandonment precipitates their panic response. Some dogs become anxious any time they are alone- whether it is 2 minutes or 2 hours. Others may only get upset if a particular person has left the house even though others may remain. A traumatic event (such as a frightening storm) can cause a dog who never had anxiety issues before to become hyper-attached to their owners. When senior pets begin to develop cognitive changes, separation anxiety may develop. And still, some pets never learn how to be comfortable without their owners present.
Signs of separation anxiety can vary - including house-training accidents, chewing at doors/windows, loud and continuous barking, drooling, panting, pacing, and moving owners belongings around the house. Often times these symptoms will begin once the dog recognizes the cues of the impending departure. In our household, when Simon knows we are leaving he becomes hyper-attached to us. When placed in his crate he carries on for up to 15 minutes (barking, whining, chewing on bars) until he finally settles down. When he comes to work with me, I have been told that when I walk out of his line of vision he has a similar response.
Separation anxiety may not always be the cause of your pet's destructive behavior when you are gone - other possibilities should be discussed with your veterinarian. A complete physical exam and lab-work should be done (age appropriate) to help rule out any underlying medical conditions that may be causing some of the symptoms. For puppies, it is important to remember that some level of destruction and whining is normal puppy behavior. Inappropriate elimination (ie peeing/pooping around the house) may be a sign of incontinence, infection or underlying endocrine disorders. Vocalizing may be a panic response however a pet may vocalize in an effort to protect their home. Always discuss your concerns with your veterinarian before attempting to diagnose your pet with separation anxiety.
How can you tell if your young dog is being playfully destructive or having anxiety while you are gone? One easy way to tell is to determine if the destruction is wide spread (ie did he chew up your couch cushions, spread toilet paper across the kitchen floor, dump the trash over in the bathroom and find you favorite sneakers to chew on) vs is the destruction focused on the exit/entryway. Often pets with anxiety will focus their energy on trying to destroy the door/window area where they last saw you - I have even seen some dogs chew their way through the door and get loose.
Once you have determined that your pet is showing signs of departure/separation anxiety it is important to determine the best course of action. Next week we will look at the different ways we can treat and prevent our pets from panicking when we leave the house!