Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Separation-related behavior problems are fairly common in dogs and also affect cats. Pets with separation-related distress aren’t acting out of spite or mischief when they shred the sofa cushions or urinate on the carpet. These animals are anxious and afraid, and they need help.
Separation anxiety is a catchall term that describes stress-related behaviors that happen when an animal is separated from its attachment person. It causes significant distress to the animal and can lead to relinquishment or euthanasia. Animals with separation anxiety sometimes have other anxiety disorders, like noise phobia. Like other types of anxiety, separation anxiety tends to get worse if it’s not treated.
Animals with separation anxiety show distress behaviors only when they’re separated from their people, not at any other time—unless, of course, they also have another source of anxiety.
Some signs of emotional distress are obvious:
Other signs are more subtle and may go unnoticed if no one is nearby to see or hear the animal:
Animals with subtle signs of anxiety are in just as much distress as the ones who destroy the house. Unfortunately, these animals might be less likely to get treatment because their signs are harder to spot.
In a survey of cat owners, the most common separation-related behaviors in cats were destruction, vocalization, inappropriate urination, depression, aggression, and agitation.
Many disorders cause the same signs as separation anxiety. Pets with possible separation anxiety should first see a veterinarian to rule out medical conditions like urinary tract infection, diabetes, and neurological disorders.
Because of the complexity of anxiety disorders, pets who show distress behaviors often need a full veterinary appointment dedicated to behavior evaluation, not just a quick discussion during a routine wellness visit. A detailed behavior history from the pet’s owner is crucial.
The best way to tell whether problem behaviors are caused by separation is by video recording the pet when the owner isn’t home. Video doesn’t require a home surveillance system; a cell phone can be set up to point at the pet while the owner leaves the house for a few minutes. Separation-related behaviors usually start soon after the owner leaves or even while the owner is getting ready to leave. Video can help pin down the cause of the anxiety (for example, maybe the dog doesn’t rip up the pillows until the mail carrier arrives). Because video is the only way to detect subtle signs of distress, it makes sense for all pet owners to record their animals at some point to be sure all is well.
Managing anxiety in animals usually requires a combination of behavior modification and antianxiety medication. The goal of behavior modification is to teach animals how to relax and calm themselves. Antianxiety medication reduces reactivity so that animals are capable of learning new behaviors, which they can’t do while they’re distressed.
Animals with separation anxiety might need more than 1 type of medication: a long-term drug taken daily and a short-acting drug to use in stressful situations or while waiting for the long-term drug to take effect. Antianxiety medications must be prescribed by a veterinarian. Various nonprescription remedies, such as pheromones and nutritional supplements, are also available. Most of these alternative treatments are more expensive than prescription medications and have less evidence to show that they’re effective.
Treatment of separation anxiety takes time—think months, not days. The most important early goals are to keep the pet safe and minimize sources of anxiety. These are some steps to take right away while waiting for treatment to take effect:
1. de Souza Machado D, Oliveira PMB, Machado JC, Ceballos MC, Sant’Anna AC. Identification of separation-related problems in domestic cats: a questionnaire survey. PLoS One. 2020;15(4):e0230999. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0230999
2. Overall KL. Advances in treating dogs who cannot be left alone. VMX 2020 Proceedings: Small Animal & Exotics: Book 1. North American Veterinary Community; 2020:120-123.
3. Sherman BL. Canine separation anxiety: a common behavior problem and welfare concern. 2019 Fetch DVM360 Conference Proceedings. MultiMedia Animal Care LLC; 2019:37-39.
4. Tynes VV. Separation anxiety and the “pandemic puppy”: what lies ahead after lockdown. American Animal Hospital Association. Accessed June 22, 2021. https://www.aaha.org/publications/newstat/articles/2021-06/separation-anxiety-and-the-pandemic-puppy-what-lies-ahead-after-lockdown/
5. Brooks W, Calder C, Bergman L. Separation anxiety: the fear of being alone. Veterinary Partner. June 4, 2020. Updated July 14, 2020. Accessed June 22, 2021. https://veterinarypartner.vin.com/doc/?id=9673053&pid=19239
Photo by Mark Zamora on Unsplash
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
The contents of this blog are for information only and should not substitute for advice from a veterinarian who has examined the animal. All blog content is copyrighted by Mallard Creek Animal Hospital and may not be copied, reproduced, transmitted, or distributed without permission.