Separation anxiety can be a very serious matter in your household with varying causes, it can often result from a one-off a traumatic experience, such as the death of a person or another pet, but, in many cases, no single event causes it — some breeds are simply genetically predisposed.
True separation anxiety is your pet’s panicked response to being left alone. The results being the destruction of your belongings and the deterioration of your pet’s mental and physical health, all can be devastating.
Importantly we need to recognise what is true Separation Anxiety and what is just misbehaviour. It can be a common misconception that when your dog digs up your prized orchids or urinates on your favourite rug, he’s seeking revenge for having been left home alone or that he’s bored when it may be the more serious condition of separation anxiety. A less common sign in cats may be excessive grooming, to the point of creating a bald spot on one or two areas of the body but more commonly it shows in excessive meowing, vomiting or scratching.
Signs and symptoms
Separation anxiety almost always includes one or more of the following behaviours when you’re not at home:
Destructive behaviours, such as chewing pillows or furniture, mutilating plants, or relentless scratching at doors and windows
Constant barking, whining, or howling
Urinating or defecating indoors
Intense, persistent pacing
Attempting to “escape” to the point of self-injury
Physiological responses, such as dilated pupils or panting
So remember, not all unwanted behaviours qualify as separation anxiety; in fact, most do not. If you come home to find your dog chewing on your slippers, in all probability he simply finds it enjoyable and uses your absence as a chance to gnaw away, uninterrupted...or he may just be bored.
Knowing the problem is serious
The behaviour occurs every time you leave.
The behaviour occurs only in your absence.
Anxious behaviours begin even before you go. For example, your dog knows that when you reach for your keys you’re about to leave the house. This is when he begins pacing and howling.
In some cases your vet may prescribe drugs to treat serious separation anxiety or a course of desensitisation with a trained therapist. Desensitisation entails gradually acclimating your dog to your departure. It usually takes eight weeks or less to bring symptoms under control; in rare cases, much longer.
Here’s a very simplified example of how you could try the techniques at home.
The first step is to get your dog used to hearing the sound of your keys jingling. When he can do that without exhibiting any signs of distress, then add picking up your briefcase. Next add walking to the door...then opening the door. Continue adding actions in baby steps until you can leave the house for a period of an hour or more without consequence. If this seems like a slow and tedious process, it is, but persevere and you should see results.
It is always a good idea to keep your greetings and goodbyes as low-key as possible. This signals to your dog that coming and going are casual, common occurrences — no need for drama or spectacular displays of emotion.
Prevention starts with puppy
Happily, separation anxiety is preventable if you’re starting with a puppy. The key is teaching him that leaving him alone actually means good things — the goal is for him to associate your departure with something positive.
Tips and techniques
Leave Kongs stuffed with peanut butter or cottage cheese ready for him to dig into as soon as you leave.
Hide small treats around the house. Make sure his favourite toys are tucked safely in places he knows to search. This gives him something to do while you’re gone and helps eliminate boredom.
Tire him out. See that he receives plenty of physical and mental exercise and that he gets lots of time with you. When you do leave, he’ll be more content to sleep or just take it easy.
A crate can also be an effective preventive tool. Dogs who’ve been properly introduced to their crate tend to feel safe and secure in this private den. However, I don't believe in locking your pet in their crate in your absence but in some cases, dogs prefer the sanctuary of a crate to being left alone in a big open house. Since every dog is different, it’s important to pay attention to exactly which options are comforting to your dog — and which aren’t — before leaving him home alone.
Unfortunately, sometimes separation anxiety just isn’t preventable, especially with an older dog. Experience or genetics may have already triggered the onset.
However, thanks to desensitisation and an understanding of the disorder, it can be treatable. In fact, a diagnosis of separation anxiety in no way precludes a healthy and happy existence for your dog. With some extra effort, your relationship can be extremely satisfying for you both.