Dr. Darren Woodson and his dog Luna
Dr. Darren Woodson and his dog Luna

It seems that in my career span since graduating from Kansas State University in 1985, each year we see more behavioral issues in pets. Perhaps we have humanized our four-legged friends, and, in doing so, they have developed some "people" behavioral dysfunctions. Regardless, today I want to discuss separation anxiety which is a very common canine issue.

Separation anxiety in our pets is often discussed as a diagnosis when a pet misbehaves in the absence of its owners. Pet owners need to help veterinarians distinguish this behavior from a pet misbehaving out of boredom. Although no specific reason for separation anxiety has been proven, a dog's strong pack mentality and need for social contact may contribute to this disorder. When the social connection is withdrawn, the dog's anxiety boils over. Triggers for separation anxiety include anything from a change in the owner's schedule, a return from a boarding situation to even the death of a companion pet.

It is believed that some shelter dogs that have been "re-homed" multiple times are at higher risk. Separation anxiety is less common in cats, but indoor cats have been studied and seem to be under stress, which can trigger bladder infections (a future topic).

Separation anxiety can be characterized by a variety of signs. Symptoms could be mild — loss of appetite, drooling and pacing — or more severe — destruction of household items, house soiling and extreme vocalization. These behaviors happen only when the owner is gone. They will not manifest when the owner is present with the pet. This defines a general category of behavior issues in dogs called "owner absent" behavior problems. Many pets with separation anxiety will often follow their owners from room to room or desire constant physical contact. Many describe these dogs as "needy" or "Velcro dogs" as they lack self-confidence in being alone.

Since these behaviors can also indicate boredom, it is important to speak with your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist if you think your dog might have separation anxiety. A video from your smart phone is always helpful for your veterinarian to see your pets environment and the activity going on.

There is no quick fix for the actual separation anxiety. Owners must be committed to helping their pet cope with the severe stress in their absence. Treatment for the pet might consist of anti-anxiety medication and some smart and consistent behavioral techniques. Increasing a dogs exercise schedule is always a good place to start. The use of any medication without a concurrent program or counter-conditioning or behavior modification is likely doomed to fail. There are no shortcuts to helping dogs with this problem! Above all, owners should never punish their pet when they arrive home to a disaster area. Dogs simply cannot equate the punishment with the behavior that probably happened hours ago. This creates another, perhaps even more serious anxiety, when owners punish the pet upon return.

Although often recommended for most pets, crating — using kennel confinement for training — can be counterproductive and even injurious to pets with separation anxiety. If the pet has never been crated before, confinement can actually worsen the situation. However, crating may be necessary to prevent immediate damage or even relinquishment of the pet. Crating can be used in conjunction with urgent work/medications on behavior modification, environment changes and the owners understanding of this serious and complex issue.

If you think your pet exhibits separation anxiety, don't wait to get help, as these problems can get worse with time. Talk to your veterinarian about medications for immediate relief and perhaps a behavior consultation to help with the long-term changes that need to happen for these dogs to live normally.

Dr. Darren Woodson has practiced veterinary medicine in the Farmington area for more than 28 years and has a passion for educating pet owners. If you have a question you would like him to address, email dwoodson@valleyvetpet.com. Please understand Dr. Woodson will choose the questions that are most relevant to our readers.