What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a state of distress experienced by a dog or a cat (for our purposes) upon anticipation and/or the realisation of having been left behind by (separated from) the owner and/or other household members (including other pets). It is a behavioural or physical response exhibited by the affected animal and also has a biochemical component at play. It is not uncommon to find pets suffering from separation anxiety who also experience other anxiety-related conditions such as phobias of thunderstorms, loud noises and fireworks.

What are the symptoms of separation anxiety?

The animal suffering from separation anxiety will exhibit such symptoms and behaviours as incessant barking or howling, chewing, digging and other property destruction (like shoes, toys, furniture, pot plants, etc.), either pacing or escaping the yard, coprophagia (ingestion of faecal matter), urinating or defecation in inappropriate places, and self-mutilation like chewing on or licking their paws to excess.

What causes separation anxiety?

Several theories have been proposed as to the possible causes of separation anxiety. One of these is the discovery of an anxiety gene, similar to the anxiety gene identified in humans who also suffer from anxiety. Separation anxiety – theorised as a genetic condition – could therefore be potentially heritable as well as a common occurrence in specific breeds. Another school of thought suggests that the condition is a result of chemical imbalances and functional abnormalities. As such, medicating the patient can be beneficial in alleviating the symptoms when managing separation anxiety cases.

A quick review of the vast research on this topic uncovers several predisposing factors to the condition, which are noteworthy for pet owners. Predisposing factors usually encountered in practice include excessive greeting by the owner, hyper-attachment to the owner, single adult human home, changes in family circumstances, traumatic experiences early in the pet’s life, and de-sexing. With the vast number of predisposing factors to anxiety, case management of the condition therefore becomes a huge challenge for the attending veterinarian, particularly with attempts in modifying those pet owner behaviours identified as risk factors.   

What are the tell-tale signs of separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety manifests when the pet owner is away from the affected pet, hence the signs will often be missed by the owner. The use of hidden cameras assists in identifying the signs of anxiety and its diagnosis. Usually the first sign that a problem exists is the pet owner’s discovery of evidence of destruction of furniture and anything else the anxious pet would have had access to, when they return home. Repetitive behaviours like pacing and digging would undoubtedly leave physical evidence of the pet’s distress. The new behaviours would be unexpected and clearly unusual of their pet. In fact, behavioural referral centres report that the most common reason pet owners are sent to them is destruction in the home by their pets suffering from separation anxiety.

Other signs pet owners tend to identify include vocalisation such as howling (when the neighbours complain), and evident self-mutilation and excessive behaviours like paw licking and drooling. In addition, pets with separation anxiety tend to go off food, may withdraw from the owner upon their return, experience diarrhoea, and at worst aggression towards the owner or other pets, particularly if they had left and returned with the owner.

A pet suffering from separation anxiety is not being malicious and therefore should never be punished! Their response to being left alone is the result of a chemical imbalance and/or learned behaviour; not naughtiness. Punishment is never an appropriate response and may even increase anxiety.

How do vets diagnose the condition?

Diagnosis by a veterinarian relies strongly on a good patient history from the owner, which is then combined with physical examination findings and (sometimes) blood tests. The power of hidden cameras should not be minimised as an aid in information gathering. A thorough physical and neurological examination is required to rule out any anatomical abnormalities, including hidden pain, which could be causing the sudden behavioural changes. Proper examination therefore serves to confirm whether the patient suffers truly from separation anxiety instead of being confused with other conditions similar to it. Blood tests are relied upon to detect and rule out detectable chemical imbalances in the body. Of importance is a test to assess if the thyroid is functioning effectively. Once a correct diagnosis is reached, proper management can then ensue. 

How to manage separation anxiety

The starting point for managing the animal’s separation anxiety would be for the veterinarian to characterise the severity of the condition. A distinction is then made between whether the pet requires medical management or only enhancements in their environment and the owner’s behaviour. Consequently a plan of action is developed and implemented.

It is important to understand that the management of separation anxiety needs to be tailor-made for each patient as the condition might differ significantly from patient to patient. Pet owners will also require training on how to better manage their anxious pets, and receive tips on particular behaviours specific to each affected pet.

Environmental enhancement will include the use of hormones such as the dog appeasing hormone, which has been found to calm anxious pets. (Several other hormones exist on the market for which owners’ regular veterinarians can make recommendations).  For single-pet households, adding a companion has been found to reduce the severity of anxiety in some instances. Adding toys and other environmental stimulators can help, particularly in cats. When leaving pets at kennels over long periods of time, an alternative would be finding a pet sitter who is familiar to the pet/s. A major advantage is that the anxious pet is spared the additional stressor of a changed environment.

Medical management will include the use of calming tablets or pastes. The medications can either be over-the-counter nutraceuticals or – in severe cases – prescribed scheduled drugs. Scheduled drugs will require a full physical examination of the patient to ascertain that they qualify to safely receive the intended medication without experiencing severe side effects. It is important to note that medical treatment tends to be as long as four to six months. In severe cases, medical treatment becomes life long, and possibly requires a combination of medicines. When the treatment becomes chronic, blood tests are required every six to 12 months at the veterinarian’s discretion.   

Can separation anxiety be prevented?

Prevention of the condition is very difficult especially with rescues, as the new owner has no knowledge of the pet’s history. However, once triggers of episodes of anxiety have been identified, it becomes imperative to enhance the patient’s environment accordingly. The aim would be to attempt to completely avoid stressors or at best to minimise the duration and minimise the stress surrounding the period of separation.

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