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


Other rule outs

In addition, always remember to rule out other causes (including behavioral and medical) of destruction, housesoiling, and vocalization. For example, if a dog is housesoiling, confirm that the dog is truly housetrained and that housesoiling never occurs in the owner's presence. You should also confirm that the dog does not have any medical conditions that might lead to housesoiling. If accidents do occur in the owner's presence, review housetraining protocols with the owner and make sure the dog's housetraining improves before considering a diagnosis of separation anxiety.

Destruction of household items can occur as an element of play and exploratory behavior in many dogs, even one of this age. In fact, I would be most careful to rule this out in a dog such as the one described here in which the history suggests that the dog may not be receiving adequate physical and mental stimulation or appropriate supervision. The fact that the dog exhibits some destructive chewing behavior even when the owner is present suggests that a lack of stimulation could be at least part of the problem.

Some dogs exhibit destructive behavior because other fearful or exciting stimuli may be present when the owner leaves. For example, dogs with thunderstorm phobias or other sound phobias may exhibit the type of destructive escape behavior that you describe if those stimuli occur while the owners are gone. However, if this is the case, the dog should also exhibit similar signs when the owner is present as well, but it should be noted that many dogs with fears and phobias may be somewhat less distressed when their owners are present and be extremely distressed when they are alone during the scary events.

Dogs that become excited or aggressively aroused about the presence of passing dogs, wildlife, or strange people may also exhibit destructive behavior around doors or windows in the home, where they often sit and watch people and animals pass by. Again, this type of behavior should be displayed when the owner is present as well, so a good behavioral history will help you to rule out these other causes of destructive behaviors.

Finally, many behaviorists recognize an additional diagnosis called barrier frustration in which a dog is simply distressed by confinement. Affected dogs may become extremely destructive in their attempts to escape confinement, regardless of whether their owners are present. These dogs are likely still experiencing severe distress, but in these cases treatment involves teaching the dogs to tolerate confinement as opposed to teaching them to tolerate being separated from their owners.

Differing degrees of separation anxiety

Behaviorists have differing opinions on subclassifications of separation anxiety. In my experience, individual dogs exhibit different degrees of separation anxiety. In the most severe cases, a dog's distress is present whenever its owner (or the person to whom it is most attached) is absent. However, many dogs with what could be considered a milder degree of separation anxiety are OK as long as some individual is present. And some dogs are OK as long as they have a canine companion present.

Unfortunately, I find this last category to be uncommon and, thus, am hesitant to suggest that people acquire a second dog to help the dog that has separation anxiety. The fact that the dog described here was less distressed when in the other home with another dog may have had as much to do with being in a novel environment as being with the other dog. While some dogs begin displaying their separation anxiety immediately in any environment, in other dogs it appears to develop after a period of time in a particular environment.


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