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?


Why the distress?

No one fully understands what predisposes dogs to developing separation anxiety. Some dogs with separation anxiety display signs of hyperattachment, while other dogs simply appear to be unable to cope with being alone. There is a great deal of variation in the presenting signs and histories of dogs with separation anxiety. However, once a dog has developed separation anxiety, the repeated experience of being left alone while suffering great emotional distress leads to a steady worsening of the distress over time.

Essentially, these dogs begin associating their distress with the place they are left and the state of being alone. This explains why some dogs that experience separation anxiety while being confined to a kennel may become extremely phobic of the kennel and actually harm themselves severely in an attempt to get out of the kennel.

It also probably explains why some dogs with separation anxiety are fine when left in the car. The car is a completely novel environment, and because it is rare for a dog to be left alone in a car for four to eight hours, some of them will not show distress when left alone in the car. This is not the case with all dogs, however, so do not encourage owners of dogs with separation anxiety to begin leaving their dogs in the car rather than at home without a thorough discussion of the dogs' history and behavior and the pros and cons of leaving a dog alone in the car.

Thoughts on treatment

Treatment of separation anxiety is rarely easy; it requires patience, persistence, and dedication on the owner's part. It is a condition that can often be managed even when it cannot be completely cured. And it is likely to be more easily treated if help is sought as soon after the appearance of clinical signs as possible, since the condition is likely to worsen with time.

Ultimately, separation anxiety is a treatable condition, but to treat it successfully, you must begin with an accurate diagnosis, usually confirmed by a videotape demonstrating signs of anxiety or distress when the dog is left alone.

Rehoming a dog with separation anxiety is always an option, but in my experience it is a rare person who has the luxury of never leaving home without his or her dog. Even rehoming should not be considered without a treatment plan in place for treating the problem, whether it is separation anxiety, barrier frustration, or a case of a dog that is being understimulated and underexercised.

Valarie V. Tynes, DVM, DACVB
Premier Veterinary Behavior Consulting
Sweetwater, Texas


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