Can our pets possibly love us too much? For the estimated 20% to 40% of dog owners whose canine companions suffer from separation anxiety, the answer is a resounding, “Yes.”

What is separation anxiety in pets?

Separation anxiety is a behavior disorder in pets who are overly attached to their owners and intensely distressed in their absence. And, while being adored is nice, separation anxiety can have potentially dangerous and life-limiting consequences for affected dogs and cats.  

Here’s a simple guide for determining if your pet has separation anxiety and how the Neighborhood Veterinary Centers team can help ease their fears.

Training or behavior? Separation anxiety signs in pets

Recognizing separation anxiety can be tricky, because clinical signs are similar to general pet misbehavior. But, unlike bad manners or lapsed training, separation anxiety signs occur when the attached person is absent—not while they are with the pet—although anticipatory behaviors may occur as the person prepares to leave the home.

Classic separation anxiety signs include:

  • Panting
  • Drooling
  • Pacing or restlessness
  • Hypervigilance
  • Vocalizing (e.g., whining, barking, yowling)
  • Digging or scratching around exits (e.g., windows and doors)
  • House soiling
  • Vomiting  
  • Food refusal
  • Destructive chewing
  • Escape attempts
  • Frantic and enthusiastic greetings 
  • Clingy or attention-seeking behavior before the person leaves and after they return

Unfortunately, pets do not overcome or grow out of separation anxiety with time. Instead, untreated pets experience progressively worsening anxiety until they become injured, develop generalized anxiety disorder, or are surrendered to a shelter. If your pet is showing separation anxiety signs, consult your Neighborhood Veterinary Centers veterinarian. 

Separation anxiety diagnosis in pets

If your veterinarian suspects separation anxiety, they will perform a complete physical assessment and diagnostic testing to rule out health conditions that may be causing your pet’s behavior change. Next, they’ll conduct a complete behavior history and evaluation by asking targeted questions about your pet’s at-home routine and behavior, including how they act before, during, and after separation from their preferred person. They may also ask how you or other family members have responded, to determine if you have accidentally reinforced or intensified your pet’s behavior by punishing them. 

No test is available that can definitively diagnose separation anxiety in pets, so your veterinarian will rely on its signs and your pet’s treatment response.

Separation anxiety management for pets

Because separation anxiety is a behavior-based disorder, your pet needs veterinary care to help them manage their emotional distress and gradually help them learn new coping strategies. We never advise corrective training (e.g., scolding or punishing the pet), which can heighten the pet’s anxiety and increase their emotional distress. 

Pets with mild separation anxiety can generally be helped with lifestyle modifications and stress-reducing strategies, while more severe pets require a multi-modal approach that involves medication. Your veterinarian will help you select the best treatment combination for your pet and oversee their results.

Examples of each treatment category include:

  • Lifestyle modifications — These include changing owner behavior by practicing calm departures and arrivals. Staying calm and disengaging from your pet’s frantic behavior can prevent accidentally encouraging their anxiety.
  • Stress-reducing strategies — Creating a calm environment can reassure nervous pets and help them cope with separation. Potential stress reducers include:
    • Confinement — Some pets appreciate a safe, peaceful place, such as a crate or small room, where they can stay during their preferred person’s absence. However, other pets panic in these small spaces and are better left in a large, secure, pet-proofed area. 
    • Distraction — To further erase negative emotions around the preferred person’s departure, owners should provide a long-lasting chew or mentally engaging toy  (e.g., food-stuffed toys, treat-dispensing puzzles). Chewing and licking promote healthy endorphin release that is naturally soothing.
    • Exercise — Physical activity helps pets burn off excess energy, which may otherwise fuel anxiety, and promotes healthy rest.
  • Medication — Anti-anxiety medications and supplements can be effective for severely affected pets. However, they are not a permanent fix, and must be part of a multi-method approach.
  • Training — After your pet’s signs are under control, work with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist or a pet trainer certified in behavior modification to help your pet learn how to cope when they are alone.

Separation anxiety may be a sign of a pet’s unconditional love for their human companion—but the behavior that results can become more serious, threaten your pet’s quality of life, and worse, can irreversibly damage the pet-owner bond. Contact your southeast Texas Neighborhood Veterinary Centers location to schedule a complete physical and behavioral health assessment for your worried pet.