Just Ask the Expert: What constitutes a diagnosis of separation anxiety?


Just Ask the Expert: What constitutes a diagnosis of separation anxiety?

Jun 01, 2013

Dr. Tynes welcome behavior questions from veterinarians and veterinary technicians.
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Q. One of my patients is an 18-month-old spayed female Labrador mix that was in a shelter from 8 weeks of age until adopted.

A single owner adopted the dog, and it initially seemed fine. The owner works intermittent days that sometimes last as long as 12 hours. When the neighbors were around and the dog was home by itself, they would greet it and pet it through the fence a couple of times a day. But when the neighbors moved, the dog was left home alone on those long days with no interaction, and it began exhibiting separation anxiety-type behaviors.

The dog digs at, chews, and climbs on the fence in an attempt to get out. If placed in a crate, even for only a couple hours, it chews and digs at the crate. If given free access to come in and out of the house, it still tries to get out of the fence or comes inside and chews on furniture and other items.

The dog can be left in a car while the owner shops without exhibiting destructive behavior. When the owner visited family members who also have a dog for two weeks, the dog was fine to be left in that home with the other dog, sometimes for as long as two or three hours, without exhibiting destructive or escapist behaviors. Even if the dog was put in a separate room and the resident dog was allowed to roam freely while the family was gone, the dog in question did not exhibit any destructive behavior.

The dog does chew on things left within reach, such as shoes and plastic pill bottles, whether alone or while people are home. And the dog has never urinated, defecated, or deliberately caused self-injury when left alone. But the owner is concerned the dog will hurt itself simply by trying to climb the fence, etc.

Does this dog have true separation anxiety? The owner would like to keep the dog but can't have the dog continually trying to escape or be destructive. What options are there for this owner to keep the dog or for the dog to go to a better-fitting family?

Dr. Valarie V. Tynes
A. The history described here demonstrates how challenging it can be to accurately diagnose separation anxiety, or separation-related distress, as some prefer to call it. The most common behaviors associated with separation anxiety are destruction, housesoiling, and vocalization. However, what is important to note here is that these are the behaviors reported by owners most commonly primarily because they cause a problem for the owners—vocalization often leads to complaints from neighbors, and destructive behaviors and housesoiling can lead to expensive home repairs.

The more easily missed (and often ignored) signs that a dog is distressed by separation from an owner—pacing, panting, salivating heavily, trembling, and whining—are often the earliest signs displayed by a dog with separation anxiety. Some dogs even begin displaying these signs when they see their owners preparing for departure, and most dogs with separation anxiety continue exhibiting these signs for 15 minutes to an hour after their owners depart.

To accurately diagnose separation anxiety, signs of distress associated with the owner's real or perceived absence from the dog must be present. Not all dogs with separation anxiety exhibit vocalization, destruction, and housesoiling; some only exhibit one or two of these signs. What is necessary are signs of anxiety or distress, and the best way to determine if these are present is to have the owner set up a video camera to videotape the dog for the 30 minutes to an hour after the owner leaves.