We can all agree that the words anxiety and dogs do not belong in the same sentence. We want our pups to be happy and healthy, with everything that their hearts desire.
Unfortunately many dogs are prone to suffer from separation anxiety—the fear of being apart from their primary caregiver, a family member, or even other pets. This is a particular concern as we slowly return to post-pandemic normalcy, which means we’ll no longer be at home 24/7, hanging out with our pets.
This is not only a big change for us; our dogs need to adjust as well. Some do it better than others, but many (especially those that have been adopted during the pandemic) might struggle with the transition. It won’t be a surprise if we see an increase in separation anxiety in dogs over the coming months. They’re used to having us around, and can feel distressed when we leave— leading to anxiety and destructive behaviors.
Fortunately, there is a lot that we can do to help our furry friends remain calm. This is what we’ll be discussing:
Signs of separation anxiety
What can separation anxiety lead to?
What causes separation anxiety in dogs?
What can you do to help your anxious dog?
Signs of separation anxiety
If you suspect your dog might be struggling with separation anxiety, there are certain signs that you can watch out for. Here is a list of atypical behavior that your dog might be showing:
- Destructive chewing. Your dog might start gnawing on things he normally wouldn’t chew on, like furniture or clothing.
- Barking. A very common sign of separation anxiety is when dogs express their anxiety through excessive barking, howling, or whining when home alone.
- Salivation. Your pup might be slobbery even when they’re not stressed out, but excessive drooling—especially right before you leave the house—could be a warning sign
- Using the house as a bathroom. Finding your dog’s pee or poop in places where it’s not supposed to be? They could be trying to tell you something.
- Trying to escape the house. Some anxious dogs will attempt to escape via exit points like doors or windows.
Some of these signs might indicate that the dog simply needs housetraining. But as Dr. Stephanie Liff, Lemonade’s favorite vet, explains—separation anxiety might be the culprit if the symptoms above are tied to when you’re leaving the house, or absent for stretches of time.
In any case, it’s always important to review your dog’s history and behaviors with your own vet.
What can separation anxiety lead to?
When dogs get anxious they can act out, causing serious harm to themselves or to your home.
Dogs can really hurt themselves while trying to escape from the house, for instance. Some chew and dig at windows and doors, which can result in injured paws, nails, and teeth—as well as vomiting and diarrhea. Plus, as Dr. Liff explains, chronic stress and anxiety can have a cumulative, negative effect on your dog’s body.
Dogs with separation anxiety will often attack objects that aren’t meant to be chewed up or scratched. A doggy-destroyed couch or carpet is not a great ‘welcome home’ gift, and repairing or replacing your stuff can get expensive fast.
Beyond the confines of your own place, a dog with separation anxiety presents additional challenges, especially in an urban apartment building. The person living above you might not take kindly to your Chihuahua, who barks wildly for hours when you’re off at work.
“In New York City, eviction is a huge concern,” Dr. Liff tells us. “Clients are constantly coming in and saying they’re getting notes from the neighbors, or their landlord, describing that their dog is vocalizing—screaming—while they’re gone.”
As we’ll describe later, a dog with separation anxiety is certainly not a lost cause, and there’s plenty you can do to help. So take a deep breath, and let’s continue.
What are the causes of separation anxiety?
Major life changes are one of the biggest causes of separation anxiety.
The pandemic has kept many of us in our homes, which means a lot of people have taken the opportunity to adopt a pet. While this is a great thing, it also means a lot of puppies and young dogs who have spent the past year in nearly constant contact with their owners. They might not be used to being by themselves. And now that there’s a slow return to the IRL office, it spells a big change, both for humans and their dogs.
“My dog has always been very clingy and sensitive, but he’s definitely gotten used to having my fiancé and I home all day. Having us home all day feels like an expectation for him at this point, rather than a nice surprise [as it was] at the beginning of the pandemic.”—Ashley D., Lemonade Pet CX Squad Lead
Other life changes that could lead to separation anxiety might include moving apartments, the death of a family member, or the absence of a companion (maybe your household experienced a divorce, or a child going off to college). While you can’t explain what’s going on to your dog, animals are sensitive, and our pets pick up on these things—any of which could lead to stress and anxiety.
In many cases, it might also be that your dog is more prone to separation anxiety because of their personality. All dogs are different and some might just be more sensitive than others.
A particularly traumatic past experience could also be the cause of separation anxiety. Perhaps your place was robbed when no one was at home except for your dog. Or perhaps the dog you just adopted experienced unfortunate things at the shelter, or at the hands of a previous owner.
Now it’s time to dig into what you can actually do to help your pup.
How can you treat separation anxiety?
Here’s a list of tips and tricks that you’ll want to try sooner rather than later if you’ve noticed signs of separation anxiety.
It can feel cruel to keep your dog confined. But crate training can be very beneficial for dogs with separation anxiety, allowing them to become more independent, and able to settle down on their own.
You want the crate to be a haven for the dog, a place where they feel safe and happy. The crate should be big enough for the dog to stand in without hitting their head, and with enough room to turn around and lay down comfortably.
Start by leaving your dog in the crate for a short period, slowly increasing the amount of time they spend in it. Feed your dog in the crate and play fun, silly games when they’re inside, so that they’ll associate the crate with feeling loved and taken care of.
It’ll take some time and patience on your part, but if you’re consistent, your dog will learn to love their crate—to feel protected and comforted, rather than locked up.
However, according to the ASPCA, if your dog’s behavior around or in the crate does not improve over time and your dog is showing signs of distress (like barking, drooling, or trying to escape), crating might not be the way to go. Something similar that you can try is training your dog to remain in one room, or a separate area of the room, by using gates instead of a crate.
Desensitization and counter-conditioning
Want to swap anxiety and fear for calm and relaxation? There are ways to help improve your pet’s behavior, it just takes time and effort.
Desensitization turns negative behaviors into positive ones by repeated exposure to whatever is causing the problem. Let’s say your dog gets visibly stressed before you leave the house. You can try opening and closing the door—without leaving—until your dog isn’t triggered by it anymore. The next step would be to open the door, step out, closing the door, and come back right away. Then slowly increase the amount of time that you’re outside before returning and…. you get the drill!
Counter-conditioning is a process that helps create positive associations in your pup’s mind. With time, your pet will learn that something she feared before isn’t actually so bad. When you leave the house for an errand, give your dog a treat or toy to keep them busy, like a Kong filled with peanut butter. Ideally, when you’re away in the future, your dog will have added a positive association to your absence.
Instead of thinking: “When my parent leaves, I’m all alone and stressed,” your puppy will think: “When my human leaves, I get an awesome treat!”.
If you need specific advice or help, you can always consult a veterinary behaviorist to help figure out what best suits you and your dog.
Exercise can definitely be effective in mild cases of separation anxiety. When a dog moves a lot and gets rid of pent-up energy in her body, she will be tired when you leave, which can prevent anxious feelings. If exercise is done consistently before you leave for the day, your dog will also associate their parent heading out with a sense of well-earned fatigue—and a lovely nap.
Natural supplements or medication
There are multiple natural supplements out there that can really help dogs feel more relaxed when left alone.
CBD products, for example, are exploding in popularity not only for people but with animals. Studies suggest that CBD can manage pain, anxiety, and inflammation in people. And because dogs have a similar endocannabinoid system to humans, this could mean that doggies can reap the benefits of CBD as well. Need some extra TLC? Grab the CBD!
Pheromones can also really calm down your dog. These are available as plug-in diffusers, sprays, or collars. They’re super easy to use, you don’t need a prescription, and no negative side effects are known. Research suggests that dog-appeasing pheromones can be effective in decreasing separation anxiety as well as distress and fear.
For harder cases, more serious medication is not only beneficial, but necessary. “For severe cases, medication is often needed, because these dogs are ‘flipping out’ and they can’t calm themselves down,” Dr. Liff says. “We need to help alleviate the anxiety they feel, so they can learn it’s okay to be alone.”
Prescription meds that can benefit our dogs aren’t all that dissimilar to ones that humans might take for certain mental health conditions. (Let’s state the very obvious, though: Never, ever reach into your own medicine cabinet to treat your anxious doggo!). Your vet might suggest Prozac (fluoxetine), Clomicalm, trazadone, or other options.
Dog sitter or doggie daycare
If you leave the home for long periods of time and your training sessions just aren’t doing it for you and your dog, you might want to consider bringing your dog to a daycare or arranging a dog sitter. The company of other dogs or a trusted pet sitter can work wonders.
Dogs aren’t that different from people. Many of us love white noise in the background, since it makes distracting sounds less noticeable. Same goes for dogs. Silence is nice, but when it gets too silent, every little sound can trigger your dog’s anxiety. The remedy? Let Alexa play some calming tunes for your baby when you’re not home. There are a ton of playlists (or 15-hour-long videos) out there that play music that will help your dog relax.
Keep at it, and work together…
This was a lot of info and you might feel a bit overwhelmed. But we are here to tell you that there’s no need to worry. Take it day by day, stay consistent with your training sessions, and ask for help if you feel stuck. You and your fur baby can do it!