Ask the Vet: COVID and separation anxiety

Ask the Vet: COVID and separation anxiety

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By Matthew Kearns, DVM

Luckily, with more people getting vaccinated, things are opening up and people are going back to work. This also means many dog owners previously working from home are leaving some distressed (and possibly destructive) doggies. The term separation anxiety refers to the anxiety your pet feels when you leave. The frustration of behaviors associated with this condition is a common cause of surrendering pets. This two-article series should hopefully give an overview of the disorder and treatment options.

Separation anxiety occurs in dogs of any age, breed (even mixed breeds), and gender. The disorder is seen in a higher percentage of dogs adopted from shelters. Previously, it was theorized that separation from mom and littermates and changes in environment (surrender to a shelter) may play a major role. More recently, we’ve seen owners that are spending almost all their time sheltering in place with their dogs having the same problems. 

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When my son turned two I learned very quickly what separation anxiety is in humans and what triggers it. He would scream and cry when his mother left the room. When we spoke to his pediatrician about this behavior the doctor explained that at that age my son was aware enough to understand that his mom was leaving, but still too young to understand when (and if) she was coming back. 

Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety are the same way. It may manifest as “spiteful” and this behavior is unacceptable, but these dogs are purposely “spiteful” or “bad dogs.” They are actually having the equivalent of a nervous breakdown every time you leave.  

The most common sign of separation anxiety is destructiveness (scratching, biting, urination, defecation) when you are not home, especially if it is aimed at the door you just exited or windows near the door. One pet owner described their dog as running upstairs every time they left. One time the dog became so agitated it broke through a screen and jumped from an upstairs balcony. 

Another common sign is vocalization (barking, howling, whining) after you have left (this will not make you popular with your neighbors). Self-trauma (the pet licking or chewing at itself sometimes until bleeding) is also very common.  

DO NOT GIVE UP HOPE.  THERE IS HELP AVAILABLE. First speak to your veterinarian about making sure there is not a medical/neurologic disorder mimicking these behaviors (seizures, pain, etc). An exam and certain diagnostics (bloodwork, X-rays, fecal analysis) are a good baseline to make sure nothing else is going on. If that is ok, help with a trainer or animal behaviorist are a real good idea (especially one that can assess your dog in his/her home environment). Sometimes medication in conjunction with behavioral modification is needed. 

The next article will focus on behavioral modification and medications to treat separation anxiety. 

Dr. Kearns practices veterinary medicine from his Port Jefferson office and is pictured with his son Matthew and his dog Jasmine.