Diagnosing and treating your dog’s separation anxiety
Dogs can experience mental health crises just like we humans do. Here’s how to help your pet through separation anxiety, while keeping the peace in your strata property
Many of us invite pets such as dogs into our lives to boost our mental health and quality of life. However, we do not always stop to think about how our lifestyle might affect our pet dog’s mental health, especially now that we are starting to get back to our pre-COVID work and social routines.Do you receive complaints from others living in your strata property about your dog barking all day? Are you coming home to ripped up furniture? These may be signs that your beloved pet is suffering from separation anxiety. Here is what you need to know about dogs and separation anxiety:
- The dog breeds that may commonly develop separation anxiety
- The red flag and tell-tale signs
- Medical and behavioural conditions to rule out
- What could be causing your dog’s separation anxiety
- Treatment options for separation anxiety
The dog breeds that may commonly develop separation anxiety
As many dog owners would already know, your dog’s breed does play a role in behaviour, personality and temperament. Sadly, some dog breeds are sadly more susceptible to developing separation anxiety. These include:
- Toy poodles
- German Shorthaired Pointers
- Jack Russel Terriers
- Australian Shepherds
- German Shepherds
- Labrador Retrievers
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
- Border Collies.
The red flag and tell-tale signs
These are some of the most common signs and symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs:
- Urinating and defecating around the apartment when you are not at home
- Defecating and then consuming the excrement
- Chewing on and destroying household items such as door frames and furniture
- Continuous barking and howling that is triggered by being left alone
- Walking or pacing in a fixed pattern or path
- Trying to escape by digging holes or scratching or chewing through windows and doors
- Self-harm behaviours, including pulling out fur or scratching skin
- Excessive whimpering
- Excessive lip licking.
3. Medical and behavioural conditions to rule out
Diagnosing separation anxiety in dogs can sometimes be quite tricky, as many of the aforementioned symptoms can indicate medical and behavioural conditions too. You should investigate and try to rule out the following conditions and behavioural problems to decide if your pet really does have separation anxiety:
- Side effects from medication: Man’s best friend can suffer from side effects from medication just like we humans do. Several canine medications list frequent urination and soiling as side effects. If your pet doggo is currently on any medication, check with your vet to find out if the medication is causing this behaviour
- Medical incontinence: Incontinence is a medical condition that can result in a leaky bladder. Dogs can experience this due to old age, as well as medical conditions such as urinary tract infections, diabetes and kidney disease. If you suspect incontinence is a possibility, you should get in touch with your vet for medical advice
- Scent marking: Some dogs mark out their territory through scent marking via urination. If this is the case, you might notice your dog raise a leg to urinate a little, especially on vertical surfaces
- Barking and howling triggers: Some dogs are triggered to bark or howl excessively by things like sudden sounds (think planes flying ahead, garbage trucks, cars tooting horns, or a neighbour’s dog barking) or sights (a bee, a dragonfly, a shadow, or smoke from a neighbour’s BBQ)
- Juvenile behaviour patterns: Some puppies act out through destructive behaviours when young (just like children do), but then grow out of these behaviours as they mature. A strict routine and thorough house training may help your pup outgrow these patterns
- Inadequate house training: If a dog’s house training was not completed, or was not done to a high standard, they may urinate or defecate around the home. Consider re-visiting house training
- Boredom: The reality of the situation is that some dogs just act out due to boredom. Dogs need mental stimulation just like humans do and can become unruly without it. Try introducing stimulation in the form of stimulating or interactive toys or another pet for companionship, to see if this is the problem.
4. What could be causing your dog’s separation anxiety
Animals are capable of experiencing trauma and being affected by changes to regular routines and living environments, just like we humans can. Here are a few potential causes of separation anxiety in dogs:
- Changes in routine: If your entire family was working and studying from home in 2020 and then phased back to performing these tasks away from home the following year, it is possible your beloved pet dog is feeling the effects of this change. Abrupt changes in routine, particularly when it comes to when and how long a dog is left at home alone, can trigger the development of separation anxiety in dogs
- Past trauma or change in ownership: Rescue and rehomed dogs in particular sometimes develop separation anxiety. This can be triggered by a range of reasons, including past trauma, abandonment and change in guardianship
- Changes in their environment: Dogs can become very attached to their environment and are sometimes territorial too. Therefore, some dogs might develop separation anxiety if the family moved to a new home
- Absence of a family member: If a pet’s beloved family member moves out of home or passes away, the pet might experience separation anxiety.
Treatment options for separation anxiety
First and foremost, you should consult your vet on what could be causing this behaviour just in case your pet has an underlying medical condition that needs to be tackled and overcome. Treatment options available will vary, depending on the severity and root cause of your pet’s separation anxiety.
- Medication: If your pet’s separation anxiety is severe, your vet might recommend medication as part of a treatment plan. While this will help calm your pet down when anxious, it is not a total cure for the condition. You may find that discovering and treating the root cause while following a medication regime may be helpful.
- Rethink routines: Dogs are creatures of habit, just like we are. This means that if a pet pup’s human family does not impose boundaries (e.g. lets the family pet follow family members around or places the pup on someone’s lap whenever the family sits down on the couch), the pup might not develop the self-confidence it needs to become independent and handle being left alone without a companion. Setting strict routines boundaries around how the pup is treated and is expected to behave, and making sure every member of the family follows them, can go a long way in changing habits and reducing separation anxiety. You can develop a routine to follow before you leave home for extended periods of time. This might help reduce anxiety levels while you are away, and show your pet that you are about to leave temporarily but will definitely come back later in the day.
- Engage in obedience training: Obedience training can also help with this issue. You can train your dog to do things like sit, lie down and stay calm while you leave the room for a small period at a time, until they are able to develop confidence in themselves. It is important for your pet to understand that you and your family members are the pack leaders, and you expect good behaviour
- Provide physical and mental stimulation: When a dog has lots to occupy itself with when left alone, the dog is less likely to feel anxious and act out. Placing chew toys in the areas in which your dog spends the most time will help, as will leave out some of your dog’s favourite foods. If you hide treats around the house, your dog may spend time trying to find them which will help to keep it preoccupied. Ensuring your dog gets plenty of exercise every day can be important, especially before you have to leave home. When dogs have lots of unspent energy, they are more likely to act out. However, a tired dog may be mellow when left alone.
- Plan ahead: If being left alone for long periods of time is your dog’s main trigger, you could consider enrolling your dog in doggy daycare or leaving your dog at a close friend or family member’s house. This will help ensure they are well cared for while you are away from home and will provide your pet with some companionship in your absence too
- A new furry friend: If loneliness is your pet’s main trigger, consider getting another dog. This is particularly relevant for dogs who have just lost a furry friend. Having a companion around all day might help alleviate your dog’s separation anxiety.
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