Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Causes, Prevention, and Treatment

Separation anxiety in dogs is a common topic among animal professionals and owners; approximately 22-50 percent of dogs suffer from this condition, and most owners don’t realize the happier their dog is to see them walk through the door, the more likely it has experienced some form of anxiety while they were away.

While owners often become aware of separation anxiety in dogs through evidence like destructive tendencies, many dogs don’t have obvious symptoms, and if they do, their owners aren’t home to witness them.

What causes separation anxiety in dogs?

Like humans, dogs can experience anxiety for a number of reasons, separation from a family member or owner only being one of those. Defined by the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation as “a state of anticipation of future danger or misfortune,” anxiety in dogs is often accompanied by physical signs of tension such as:

  • Hiding
  • Pacing
  • Urination/Defecation Inside
  • Loose Stool
  • Lip Licking
  • Vocalization
  • Hyperactivity
  • Increased Reactivity and Aggressiveness
  • Changes in Eating and Drinking
  • Social Disengagement

Separation anxiety, specifically, relates to the feelings of apprehension your dogs feels when you leave the vicinity; however, this is not the cause of the condition, just the catalyst. 

Over the years, experts have sought clear answers to what causes separation anxiety in dogs, and in April of 2020, researchers from the University of Lincoln in Lincoln, England, identified four primary forms of distress related to this type of anxiety. These triggers offer broad categories for separation anxiety causes, and primarily focus on:

  • Getting away from something in the house (Ex: Change of environment or routine). For some dogs, changes in environment and routine can be extremely stressful. Dogs rely on routine to help them know when to eat, sleep, and use the bathroom, and sudden changes without an ability to explain (can anyone speak canine?) are good reason to become nervous.
  • Wanting to get to something outside of the house (Ex: Bathroom anxieties, environmental anxiety): Not all dogs are accustomed to life inside of the home without their owners. This will cause dogs to actively work at getting outside of the home, whether to find that missing person or to be in a more familiar setting. In some cases, dogs may have left a favorite toy or other comfort source outside, or they may need to get outside to use the bathroom for fear of going inside.

  • Reacting to external noises/events (Ex: Thunderstorms, fireworks): Sound sensitivity is not always linked with separation anxiety, but it can be a causative factor. Dogs that panic during thunderstorms or other loud sound events are likely to become even more insecure if they are home alone. Then, being home alone may become associated with loud sounds, creating the separation anxiety cycle.

  • Boredom (Ex: Genetics, need for activity): It should come as no surprise that some dogs are more suited to a quiet life inside than others. High energy breeds, like herding and hunting dogs, often need a significant energy outlet or they become bored and get into things they shouldn’t. This can also be said for any dog that is alert and exceptionally intelligent. They will eventually seek something to keep themselves occupied.

But the issue of separation anxiety in dogs is far more complex than just four basic umbrella triggers. Individual dog personalities can also contribute to the severity of separation anxiety as can the relationship the dog has with you, the owner. Each case can be unique in its own ways. 

What’s more, there are medical conditions that should be evaluated that may contribute to the situation and the symptoms.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) notes incontinence, or the inability to hold the bowels or bladder for a normal length of time, can be mistaken as a symptom of separation anxiety in dogs, but can be related to a number of other medical conditions. The need to get outside sooner, can then create anxiety, especially if a dog is home alone for an extended period of time. Before you label your dog as an anxiety sufferer, make sure you have him or her fully evaluated at your trusted veterinarian’s office. 

What can you do to prevent separation anxiety in dogs?

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, goes the famous saying, and it is no less true in relation to dog anxiety. Treating separation anxiety in dogs is a non-issue if you work on preventing puppy separation anxiety.

This means working with your puppy, or new dog, from day one to ensure they are comfortable being home alone. Achieving that level of comfort comes from:

  • Proper exercise and nutrition to address pent up energy
  • Obedience to generate a trusting relationship between you and your pet
  • Proper socialization to help your dog cope with new situations and people

Most importantly, do your best to desensitize your dog to cues that might indicate you are leaving the home. Switch up where you leave your keys; don’t make a habit of putting your jacket on; start the car but then come back inside.

What are the treatments for separation anxiety in dogs?

While separation anxiety in dogs can be a frustrating issue for owners, punishment is never the answer. Your dog is not in the business of revenge; while pets are clearly upset about your absence, they are not trying to make you regret your decision to leave the home. Remember to be kind when you walk into your house and see a whirlwind of destruction. Your dog loves you, and there are only so many ways he or she can express anxiety.

Once you understand your dog isn’t trying to get under your skin, the investigation into treatment options can begin. You may need to try several options, or combination of options; there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

  • Avoidance: Perhaps the simplest of options for owners is to avoid leaving the dog home alone, or confining the dog to a small space when it is home alone. This solution means having a flexible schedule, or perhaps an accommodating work space. It may mean hiring a pet sitter, or paying for care at a local boarding facility. For some dogs, being confined to a small area, like a kennel, can ease stress.

  • Offer food toys: Food toys offer some insight into how your dog is feeling and can be a way to provide comfort when you are not at home. Encourage the use of a food toy while you are with your dog, and offer that same food toy when you must leave. If your dog can focus on the food toy, it is a sign their anxiety has decreased; dogs in severe distress will not eat.

  • Desensitization: Just as in people, separation anxiety in dogs can be linked to certain triggers. When you pick up your keys to leave, for example, your dog will learn to associate this behavior with being left alone. Some experts recommend working toward breaking your dog’s associations with certain habits to help diminish the onset of anxiety. Start picking your keys up randomly, pet and reward your dog, and then set them back down. The same can be done with opening and closing the door, or putting on your jacket. While this won’t stop anxiety from building once your dog knows you are gone, it can help take the edge off. This type of behavioral modification is known as treating “predeparture anxiety,” and it can evolve based on your dog’s needs to include everything from car sound desensitization to out-of-sight exercises.

  • The power of touch: There is much data on both the human and animal world relating to the power of touch, but research published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior suggests it may have a positive impact on separation anxiety in dogs, as well. According to the data, the simple act of petting your dog for a few minutes before leaving can have a significant calming effect during short absences. 
  • Pharmacological intervention: While they should never be seen as a “quick fix,” medications can often help treat separation anxiety in dogs while behavioral changes are addressed.

  • CBD oil: CBD oil (Cannabidiol oil) is an emerging treatment option in the veterinary world, particularly for use in dog anxiety. Preliminary research proves CBD has strong promise as a calming agent, and may be used alone or in combination with other treatment options.

Remember, every dog and every situation is different. Do not give up if the first option you try for your pet seems ineffective. Unfortunately, behavioral problems such as those seen with separation anxiety in dogs are one of the top reasons pets are relinquished to shelters every year, and those pets have an even higher chance of returning to the shelter if they get adopted.

Take the time to work through your dog’s separation anxiety. You will be rewarded with a happier, healthier lifelong companion.

Written by Mead Johnston

Mead is an experienced dog trainer, writer, and lover of animals. She has always been surrounded by animals and had a passion for learning more about them every day. This passion grew tremendously when Mead brought home a Great Pyrenees x Golden Retriever named Mac in 2018. Mead has continued to learn more about dogs whenever possible and wherever possible, while also helping so many wonderful clients. Her goal is help her clients and their dogs become confident in their daily lives. As a dog trainer, she often helps clients who are starting off with a puppy or they might have an older dog that is presenting challenging behaviours. Mead believes in the all-natural uses of Pet CBD to help our furry loved ones live longer, happier and healthier lives.

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