What is Separation Anxiety?
While most dogs may chew a toy or sleep quietly when left alone for a period of time, others may struggle when their owner leaves the house, with rather disastrous consequences. Cats too, while less common or severe, may also struggle with anxiety-related behavioral problems. These behavioral issues may also occur as a result of a fellow pet’s absence or death.
Symptoms of separation anxiety
- Barking incessantly, pacing or chewing furniture
- Mutilating plants
- Scratching at windows and doors
- Following owner from room to room and sulking or hiding when an owner is getting ready to leave the house
- An abnormally enthusiastic greeting upon the owners return
- Meowing or barking after the owner has left
- Urination or defecation near a door or on the owner's personal items
- Vomiting only when the owner is not there
- Excessive grooming, to the point of creating a bald spot on one or two areas of the body
Dogs with severe separation anxiety have also been known to go through plate glass windows, bloody their mouths and paws or defecate and urinate everywhere.
What Causes Separation Anxiety?
Causes of separation anxiety in dogs may include:
- Instinct – dogs are used to being pack animals and gregarious in nature
- Genetic factors: a dog that is genetically predisposed to anxiety may have the condition triggered by stress
- Certain breeds - It is worth doing some research into your dog's breed(s) to help you localize the problem
- Lack of socialization (dogs that were not properly socialized as puppies)
- Constant moving (dogs that have been re-homed often)
- Nervousness or dogs that have been through a trauma (robbery, earthquake etc)
- Dominant dogs or dogs who are confused by social structure in the home (they may be trying to look for their pack or feel abandoned by the leader)
Separation anxiety in cats may be caused by genetic or environmental factors, or if they are orphaned or weaned early.
Diagnosing Separation Anxiety
Diagnosis of separation anxiety in dogs:
Signs of distress that occur only when your dog does not have access to you define separation anxiety. Sometimes unruly behavior is not separation anxiety, but rather good-old-fashioned ‘naughty behavior’ (some dogs have learned that they can have a great deal of fun when you are gone).
Also look for other causes, such as strange noises from neighbors. You may set up a video camera to find out, or spy through a window – however if you are unsure, discuss it with your vet. A physical exam should also be performed to see if there is an underlying disorder. If your dog is anxious and distressed all the time, you need to look for the underlying cause. You may find it helpful to work with an animal behaviorist, who can help you to rule out other types of anxiety-related behaviors.
Diagnosis of separation anxiety in cats:
The first step is to discuss the situation with your veterinarian and have your cat undergo a complete physical exam, as it is important to make sure that an underlying physical problem is the root cause of the behavior. For example, a cat with a urinary tract infection may urinate indiscriminately, but not be suffering from separation anxiety.
A cat that is over-grooming may have a food allergy. Tests may be recommended including a complete blood count, a chemistry profile, urinalysis, thyroid testing, or a blood pressure check. You may find it helpful to work with an animal behaviorist, who can help you to rule out other types of anxiety-related behaviors.
A note on separation anxiety:
Separation anxiety can result in an unfortunate cycle: If you return to find your house in a shambles, you may get upset at your pet, who in turn, gets even more upset. This pattern may build until you feel you need to re-locate your pet! Remember: Separation anxiety is not affected by whether you are loving and attentive to your pet or not. Two pets of the same breed living with the same owner may exhibit completely different behaviors! There is treatment available to help you and your pet …
Help for Separation Anxiety
In both dogs and cats, conventional therapy for separation anxiety often involves anti-anxiety medication (often leading to prescription for antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs from the vet) - however these medications may have side effects and may not have been tested for use on animals.
There are many safe, yet effective natural remedies that can be used to help your pet deal with the impending anxiety of being left alone at home. Herbs such as Scutellaria laterifolia (Scullcap) and Passiflora incarnata are two of the best known natural remedies for soothing the nervous system and may be used regularly every day or occasionally when needed.
In addition, Hypericum perforatum (St. John's Wort) is often referred to as ‘Nature’s Prozac’ due to its ability to support emotional health and wellbeing. Kalium phosphate and Argentum nitricum are biochemic tissue salts that can naturally help to support the animal nervous system, addressing panic, nervousness, anxiety and fright on a cellular level.