Separation anxiety occurs in both dogs and cats. The emotional stress that separation anxiety causes is equally terrible for the pet and the owner. Dogs can become quite destructive, and both dogs and cats may soil the owner’s belongings. Punishment often reinforces the behavior, and accommodation of the anxiety will also cause the problem to persist. Desensitization is necessary to resolve the pet’s reason for panic and reinforce the bond that the owner has with the animal.
Dogs are social animals. Wild canine species such as wolves and coyotes live in packs or groups of family members and friends. The relationships that dogs have with each other establish hierarchy and a sense of protection. As dog owners, we fill this roll and provide the security that the dog craves. It is when the pet feels abandoned that the anxiety and unacceptable behavior occurs. Teaching the dog that the owner will return and the “pack” will be reunited is the key to alleviating stress.
Signs of separation anxiety include hypersalivation or drooling, inappropriate elimination with or without coprophagia, destructive chewing or scratching at exits from the house or crate, and incessant howling and barking. A puppy may seem impossible to housebreak when separation anxiety is a factor. They may have accidents in the crate which goes against the idea that a dog will not soil its den or bedding.
Desensitization will require very short stays alone before anxiety is at a peak and then positive reinforcement with praise and treats for appropriate behavior. This may require that the dog is comfortable sleeping in a crate even when the owner is in the next room. Baby steps are key. An extended time alone may cause the pet to revert to the separation fear. Also, the act of leaving the house should be uneventful. Triggers that induce stress include keys jingling, packing purses and luggage, etc. These signals must be avoided. Never reward inappropriate behavior with consolation. This may become an emotional trigger as well. The crate itself also can become a trigger of stress, and the goal of crate-training is not to lock the dog up every time you leave. It is a tool to teach a schedule that helps the dog establish boundaries.
For dogs with severe separation anxiety, medications are available to curb stressful emotions. They will rarely work alone without a behavior modification regimen. Some dogs respond better to one medication than another, but they include clomipramine, fluoxitine, and amitriptyline. A veterinarian must prescribe these drugs, and they often have withdrawal periods. They should never be stopped “cold-turkey” unless instructed to do so by the doctor. Never-the-less, these anti-anxiety medications can help tremendously when trying to desensitize a dog’s stress triggers.
Consultation with an animal behaviorist is also recommended for severe cases of separation anxiety. It is human nature to anthropomorphize (associate human emotion) dog behavior. An unbiased, outside party can help to analyze what role the owner may be playing to reinforce the anxiety.
Cats with separation anxiety display fewer symptoms other than one very annoying behavior, urinating and defecating on the owner’s personal belongings such as the bed and clothing. There are many health causes of inappropriate elimination in cats, so a medical reason should be ruled out first. Anti-anxiety medications can be the only option at times to resolve cat stress, as the triggers that cause separation anxiety can be subtle or un-apparent to owners.