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Does My Dog Have Separation Anxiety?

Your dog whines, cries and chews on things when you are gone, but not always these signs are indicative that your dog is suffering from separation anxiety. For a good reason, behavior experts call separation anxiety the "great imitator" as it can mimic other medical and behavioral diagnosis. While in this article we will be pointing out other possible conditions that may look like separation anxiety, it's important to understand that they are not intended to be perceived a diagnosis. Only by seeing your veterinarian or consulting with a behavior professional you can really find out the real answer to "does my dog have separation anxiety or not?"

does my dog have separation anxiety

Importance of Differential Diagnosis

When a dog or person presents with symptoms, it's important to obtain a correct diagnosis. In medicine, the practice of distinguishing a particular disease or condition from others is known as "differential diagnosis."

By collecting the patient's medical history and perhaps running a battery of tests, doctors, through a process of elimination, can heighten the chances for a correct diagnosis while eliminating the most imminently life-threatening conditions.

A differential diagnosis procedure is important when it comes to behavior problems too. Dogs may show signs of a specific behavior problem, only to discover later that it was a totally different type of behavior issue or even the result of a medical condition.

No wonder the treatment protocol didn't work! For this reason it's important to consult with a professional who asks questions and uses a a systematic diagnostic method so to rule out other potential conditions causing similar signs.

Did you know? Separation anxiety is a common behavior disorder affecting dogs all over the world. According to the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, 20 to 40 percent of dogs presented to veterinary behavioral specialists suffer from this disorder.

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My Dog Has Accidents When I Leave

dog window

A dog who eliminates when he is left alone may be a sign of separation anxiety, but it also can be something else. If you are away for a good part of the day, it could be your dog simply cannot hold it for so long. Young dogs may have not been completely house trained and older dogs may be suffering from an underlying medical condition. A dog who starts having accidents out of the blue can be highly indicative of a possible acute medical problem such as a bladder infection. It's therefore important to evaluate several possibilities.

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For instance, dogs may eliminate when they are frightened or stressed which can happen when they are home alone and exposed to scary noises. There are also chances that dogs who use doggy doors may have been frightened by scary stimuli in the yard so they no longer feel safe and start eliminating in the house. Some dogs may urine mark when they have access to windows and watch other dogs walk by which makes them feel compelled to urine mark. And then you have dogs with a substrate preference, who eliminate in the home simply because they have access to their favorite substrates (eg. carpet, tiles or hardwood floor.)

My Dog is Destructive When I am Not Home

dog guilty look

A dog who is destructive when left alone may be a sign of separation anxiety, but it can also be something else. Young dogs are often left home alone with lots of energy to spare, so when boredom sets in, they may decide to entertain themselves by disassembling the remote, destroying pillows and even removing the "entrails" from the couch.

If your dog has been punished in the past for chewing items or acting destructive, there are chances he has associated your presence with punishment, so he'll therefore chew when you are out of the home. Stop punishing your dog and instead manage his environment and provide him with plenty of acceptable things to chew on. Also make sure to meet his needs for exercise and mental stimulation!

Dogs who are stressed, aggressive or scared, may also become destructive at times. These upset dogs may be trying to escape from scary noises and aggressive dogs may start chewing on window sills and doors if they are bothered by triggers such as people or dogs walking by the house, explains veterinary behaviorist Dr. Stepita.

Sometimes, female dogs may dig at their bedding as a sign of false-pregnancy (pseudocyesis) following being spayed. In these dogs, hormonal supplementation can help them out, explains veterinarian Etienne Cote. 

" Dogs with territorial aggression vocalize in response to their triggers (people, dogs) passing by and approaching the house. They may even become destructive, chewing and scratching door frames or window sills during aggressive episodes"~ Dr. Stepita

My Dog Cries When I leave the House

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A dog who vocalizes when left home alone may be showing signs of separation anxiety, but it also can be something else. If your neighbors report your dog vocalizes a whole lot during the day while you're out, there can be chances that he's reacting to sounds such as door bells, trucks passing by, dog tags jingling, critters in the attic or people talking.

Many dogs will also vocalize when they hear other dogs barking, when they are protective of their perceived territory and when they feel fearful and stressed from some noises. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) may cause signs similar to separation anxiety. Also, it's important to consider that senior dogs may vocalize more as they show signs of cognitive decline and some may start experiencing distress as they're relying on their owners more and more for reassurance when their sight or hearing weakens.

"Senior pets may have greater difficult adapting to change and health problems may further contribute to the problem. As the pet's anxiety and insecurities increase, the pet may seek out the owner's attention. "~ Gary M. Landsberg et al.

The Importance of Context

lonely dog

Signs of separation anxiety in dogs tend to occur in a specific context: when the owner is getting ready to leave and when he's gone. Generally, these signs tend to get increasingly more severe as the owner is leaving with the peak taking place shortly after the owner leaves. So if say a dog eliminates in the home when the owner leaves but also does so on the days the owner is at home, it's likely that the elimination is not related to the owner's absence.

Same goes with chewing. If the dog chews on more generalized items than door frames, windowsills and walls (as these are perceived by the dog as the barriers separating them from the owner), there are chances that the destructive behavior is not linked to separation anxiety but due to something else.

"Sep-anx dogs are often model dogs when they're not left alone."~Jean Donaldson

The Importance of Recording

dog window

So how can dog owners have a better idea on whether their dog has separation anxiety or not? A good place to start is by videotaping the behavior in the owner's absence. By simply placing a camera at an effective angle that captures the entryway including doors and windows can be quite insightful.

Even better, setting up a live webcam can be quite helpful so that the dog owners can return in case the dog is about to become destructive, or worse, risks injuring himself. Showing the video then to a behavior professional may be quite helpful as it can provide an important puzzle piece along with other clues obtained from the dog's medical and behavioral history.

As seen, separation anxiety may be sometimes tricky to diagnose. Best to play it safe and obtain a proper diagnosis by first seeing the vet so to rule out certain medical disorders, and then consulting with a behavioral professional so to ensure there are not other possible conditions at play.

Did you know? Separation anxiety is different from isolation distress. According to Malena DeMartini, dog trainer and author of "Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs," a dog suffering from separation anxiety experiences extreme distress when separated from a specific person, or, occasionally, two people. On the contrary, dogs suffering from isolation distress suffer from the mere fact of being isolated, therefore as long as they have a caregiver to keep them company, any person "will do."

References:

  • Psychology Today, Separation Anxiety: The Great Imitator, Part 1, retrieved from the web on August 11th, 2016
  • Clinical Veterinary Advisor: Dogs and Cats, By Etienne Cote, Mosby; 3 edition (December 23, 2014)
  • Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat3: Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat By Gary M. Landsberg, Wayne L. Hunthausen, Lowell J. Ackerman, Saunders Ltd.; 3 edition (December 28, 2012)
  • Oh Behave!: Dogs from Pavlov to Premack to Pinker, By Jean Donaldson, Dogwise Publishing (April 1, 2008)
  • How Serious is it and Does it Matter, by Malena DeMartini, retrieved from the web on August 11th, 2016

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