Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Last Updated 25 JANUARY 2023

This article is written by Pet Circle veterinarian, Dr Belinda Stancombe

Does your dog get nervous when they see you getting ready for work? Do they destroy items of clothing or dig up the yard when you are out? Do they go completely crazy when you arrive home?!? These behaviours can all be signs of separation anxiety in dogs

Separation anxiety is a serious condition which can affect dogs of all breeds and sizes. In fact, one in every four dogs may be affected by separation anxiety at some point in their lifetime!

Our Vet Squad discuss what causes separation anxiety in dogs, the signs and the treatment options available, and tips to keep your dog calm and entertained while you're not home.


What Is Separation Anxiety In Dogs?

anxious dachshund chewing up paper

Separation Anxiety is the inability for a pet to be relaxed and calm when left home alone. In many cases, affected dogs will show undesirable behaviours associated with feeling anxious and stressed, just before the owner leaves the home or while they are away.

Prior to an owner leaving home, dogs may observe certain behaviours associated with their owners pending departure, such as putting on shoes, packing a bag or touching their car keys, causing their dog to begin feeling anxious.

What Are The Signs Of Separation Anxiety In Dogs

Signs of anxiety prior to departure, often brought on by the dog observing certain 'getting ready' behaviours (such as putting on shoes, packing a bag or touching the car keys), can include following their owner closely, whining or vocalising, drooling or even aggression. These behaviours can escalate once the owner leaves the home, with severe cases resulting in the pet injuring themselves when left home alone.

    Other Signs of Separation Anxiety

  • Inappropriate Toileting
  • Excessive Vocalising
  • Destructive Behaviour
  • Not Eating
  • Pacing and Irritability
  • Trying To Escape The Property

It is important to note that some pets will exhibit these behaviours due to a lack of training or boredom. It is important to distinguish between whether a dog shows these behaviours only when their owners are away, or if they occur at other times of the day. For example, if a dog toilets inside just as much when their owner is home compared to away, they may just need more toilet training.

What Causes Separation Anxiety in Dogs?

Dog anxiously looking at owner

Separation anxiety can occur in dogs of all breeds and sizes, and may develop for a range of different reasons. It is particularly common among adult shelter or rescue dogs, but can also be seen in young dogs who have never fully adapted to being separated from their owners. Dogs with other anxiety disorders such as noise phobias are at increased risk of developing separation anxiety.

    Common Causes of Separation Anxiety In Dogs:

  • Change of Ownership
  • Change of Household Routine
  • Moving House
  • Loss of a Family Member
  • Being Left Alone For The First Time

How Do You Treat Separation Anxiety in Dogs?

Small dog in thundershirt

The treatment for Separation Anxiety in dogs is very much dependant on the individual dog and the severity of their anxiety. Some mild cases of anxiety may improve a lot with the support of an dog anxiety supplement, while moderate to more severe cases may require prescription medication and behavioural training. Outlined below are the current recommended treatment options.

1. See Your Veterinarian About Separation Issues

A visit with a veterinarian or veterinary behaviourist is a good starting point to help develop a treatment plan based on the dogs individual needs and level of anxiety. It is important for the veterinarian to first rule out any other medical issues that may be affecting the dogs behaviour.

For dogs with severe anxiety or those that are at risk of injuring themselves, prescription medication may be a good starting point to help 'take the edge off' while implementing long term management strategies such as training.

2. Begin Behavioural Training

Training is an important and effective treatment for Separation Anxiety and aims to desensitise pets from owners leaving the house and then returning. Hiring a professional behavioural trainer can be a great way to introduce training strategies that help correct the dog's individual behavioural issues.

Training Tips to help with Dog Separation Anxiety:

  1. Avoid making a fuss when leaving or coming home. When you get excited with your dog when you first return, this reinforces you coming home as a significant event. Ignore them in the few minutes prior to your departure. Lots of attention before leaving can cause greater stress, especially if they can feel you are anxious or guilty about leaving them.
  2. Don't let your dog develop negative associations to your morning rituals. If putting on your shoes or picking up keys is a trigger for your dog, try doing these actions without leaving the house. Teach them that these actions will not result in you leaving the house every time.
  3. Give them alone time in small doses. Trial short periods of time away from your dog where you are in a different room to them in the house. Provide something fun or yummy such as a chewy treat or an engaging interactive toy to help distract them. You can gradually increase the amount of time spent away from your dog. When you return from your absence, try not to promote excitable behaviour; wait until they are calm before giving them attention.
  4. Try using Adaptil to help keep your dog calm and content while you are away. For indoor dogs plug in a pheromone diffuser in their favourite room, for outdoor dogs an Adaptil calming collar is a good option.
  5. Distract them with a toy or treat. Distracting your dog with an occupying toy or long-lasting treat when you leave can help keep them occupied and teach them to associate the process with positive feelings.

3. Use Dog Products Desinged To Calm

There are many products available that can help promote feelings of calm in anxious dogs. These have been outlined below:

Calming Diets

There are a range of therapeutic diets available, designed to minimise stress and anxiety in dogs.

Royal Canin Calm contains milk-derived alpha-casozepine and adapted L-tryptophan, to help relieve stress and create a calming effect.

Royal Canin Relax Care contains fish hydrolysate, a natural supplement derived from fish protein which has demonstrated proven results for managing stress in dogs.

Natural Anxiety Supplements

There are a range of natural supplements that can be added to your pet's daily regime to help minimise feelings of stress and anxiety.

Products such as Paw Blackmores Complete Calm, Thunder Wunder Calming Chews, and Vetalogica Tranquil Formula contain L-Tryptophan, a compound that has been demonstrated to help pets that suffer from behavioural issues such as aggression and general anxiety.

Zylkene is a non-medicated supplement for dogs that is derived from casein, a protein found in milk, and specially formulated to aid in the management of anxiety and stress. Zylkene is widely recommended by veterinarians, as it is highly palatable and comes in an easy to give capsule that can also be opened and sprinkled on food.

The Magic of Pheromones

Adaptil is an odourless, man-made version of the pheromones that dogs naturally release when they feel content. The correct use of these products in and around the home can promote feelings of calm and combat undesirable behaviours caused by anxiety.

For indoor dogs plug in a diffuser in their favourite room, for outdoor dogs an Adaptil collar is a good option.

Calming Treats

Every dog loves treats! Calming treats are not only a delicious way to spoil your dog but are formulated with a unique blend of natural ingredients designed to relax and soothe.

Treats such as Vetalogica Hemp Clinical Calming Treats, Vitalitae Calming Biscuit Treats and Zamipet Happitreats contain a selection of natural ingredients such as hemp seed oil, L-Tryptophan, chamomile or valerian root, to promote feelings of calm during stressful events.

Calming Clothing

Calming clothing for pets, work in a similar way to human calming products such as weighted blankets.

Products such as a dog thundershirt or Zendog Shirt apply gentle, constant pressure that releases calming endorphins that help relax anxious pets.

Calming Beds and Hideaways

Providing your dog with a 'safe haven' that they can retreat to can help them feel more relaxed at home.

Cosy bolster beds and anxiety or calming dog beds, have raised soft walls to help pets feel safe and secure while resting and help them feel relaxed and calm.

Creating a 'den-like' space for larger dogs by using a dog crate covered partially with a blanket while small breed dogs may enjoy sleeping in a hideaway bed.

Play Soothing Music

Studies have shown that playing music helps to calm and reduce anxiety in dogs, with a decrease in barking, respiratory rates and the stress hormone cortisol. Music genres such as soft rock and classical have been shown to have the most soothing effect. Playing music can also help to calm pets that suffer from storm and noise phobias.

Leaving the radio or TV on, or playing some relaxing music, can help calm anxious pets when left home alone.

4. Keep Them Distracted and Entertained

Providing dogs with something to do while an owner is away, is a great way to keep them occupied, distracted and decrease destructive behaviours. Getting into the habit of providing pets with a fun toy or treat when leaving the house, can give them something else to focus on, make the experience positive, while stimulating natural chewing instincts.

Keep them Occupied with Clever Toys

Interactive toys are a great way to keep dogs busy and distracted when home alone or during times of stress. There are plenty of interactive toys which dispense treats or encourage your pet to work for their food.

Durable rubber chew toys satisfy a dog's natural chewing urge while keeping them occupied. The addition of KONG Easy Treat Paste or Mimi and Munch Pooch Peanut Butter and dogs can spend hours trying to clean up every last morsel.

Dog lick mats are designed to keep pets stimulated and entertained, reduce boredom and anxiety, as well as slow those that eat too quickly. The flexible mat design and raised grooves allow food to be spread or sprinkled on the surface and encourage licking to retrieve the tasty treats, all while releasing relaxing endorphins. Lick mats can be loaded with pastes such as Dine Creamy Treats or even some natural yoghurt.

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Distract Them With Long Lasting Treats

Long lasting dog treats such as Bully Sticks, Pig Ear Chews and Himalayan Dog Chews are a great way to keep dogs occupied and distracted when home alone.

Dental dog treats can also be long lasting but have the added benefits of reducing tartar and plaque build up as well as freshening breathe. Recommended brands include Greenies, Whimzees and Oravet.

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5. Provide Regular Exercise For Your Dog

Providing regular exercise is a great way to burn energy and provide important environmental enrichment. Dogs that are bored and full of energy are more likely to demonstrate destructive behaviour.

Exercising dogs prior to owners leaving them ensure that any 'pent up' energy has been expelled, allowing them to be more calm and relaxed. Try varying walking paths, visit the local dog park or try some agility training to help vary daily activity and keep things interesting.

For owners short on time, enrolling in doggy daycare or signing up to a dog walking service, can help provide important enrichment and most importantly....tire them out!!

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Further Reading

New Puppy Guide

Real Cost of Supermarket Food

Pet First Aid Tips

Boredom busters for Dogs

Flea, Tick and Worming Guide For Dogs

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