A pet with separation anxiety experiences recurrent distress in the absence or perceived absence of an attachment figure. An attachment figure could be its guardian, another human, or another animal.

Separation anxiety is the second most common behavior problem of canines affecting an estimated 14% to 40% of dogs. In addition to separation anxiety, these pets may have other panic disorders or phobias including nighttime panic, and phobias to thunderstorms or noise.

Signs of Separation Anxiety

The signs associated with separation anxiety typically begin right before or just after the attachment figure leaves, and then may cycle throughout the period of the attachment figure's absence. Even the perception that the attachment figure may be leaving can serve as a trigger in some animals. The most common signs associated with separation anxiety include:

  • Destruction - often directed at exits (including door knobs), or items frequently contacted by the attachment figure (e.g. books, t.v. remote control, eyeglasses, etc.)
  • Vocalization - whining, crying, barking, howling (often high pitched and repetitive)
  • Elimination - urination and/or defecation

There are many other signs including:

  • Hypersalivation
  • Attempting to prevent the attachment figure from leaving
  • Physical injury associated with attempts to escape including broken teeth, claws, and even fractures
  • Aggressive or self injurious behaviors 

Animals can learn the routine of the attachment figure that generally leads up to their departure. These pets can start showing signs of separation anxiety and distress up to 1 hour before the actual departure.

Risk Factors for Separation Anxiety

There is not a lot of concrete evidence regarding specific causes for this problem, however there are some possible risk factors including:

  • Triggers - moving, change in schedule, loss of a family member, any recent change in the household or environment
  • Breed - Mixed breeds may be more prone to separation anxiety than purebred dogs
  • Sex - Males may be at higher risk than females
  • Rehomed dogs may be at higher risk than dogs in their first home

Consequences of Separation Anxiety

Pets with separation anxiety are uncomfortable when left alone and suffer due to the panic they feel in the absence of their attachment figure. In addition to the pet's suffering, this problem can take a toll on the pet's family. The repetitive vocalization of affected pets may lead to noise complaints by neighbors. A pet's separation anxiety can lead to a poor quality of life for all involved. In the worst of circumstances, there can be a break down of the human animal bond and relinquishment or euthanasia of the affected pet.

Treating Separation Anxiety

The goal of treatment is to help the animal feel comfortable when left alone and feel less panic related to the absence of the attachment figure. In addition to specifically addressing the separation anxiety, the general well-being of the pet must be optimized by ensuring adequate exercise and intellectual stimulation (e.g. food puzzle toys). Some pets may be more comfortable if a pet sitter is an option or in doggie daycare.

Treatment of separation anxiety generally involves a combination of management strategies including:

  • Behavior modification - to help the animal learn how to be comfortable being left alone. This can include densensitizing the pet to departure cues, downplaying departures and arrivals, and scheduling time for regular, structured and predictable interactions with the attachment figure
  • Medication - several different medications are available; Anti-anxiety medications can help reduce the feelings associated with panic within 30 to 60 minutes of administration
  • Ancillary options - can be used in addition to behavior modification and medication: Pressure wraps, T-Touch, Lavender Essential Oil, Pheromones (Dog Appeasing Pheromone - DAP), etc.
  • Affected pets should be evaluated and treated for any other concurrent / comorbid medical or behavioral problems


Pets receiving a combination of behavior modification and medication can show overall improvement within approximately 8 weeks. It is important to remember that punishment should not be part of the pet's training plan as this can lead to increased anxiety and inhibition of learning. 

The prognosis is good to excellent if separation anxiety is a new or very recent problem for the pet, the owner is highly motivated to work on addressing the problem, and the pet is in its first home. Additionally, purebreds may have a better prognosis than mixed breed dogs.

The prognosis becomes guarded for rehomed pets, pets with long-standing separation anxiety and/or other behavior problems, and possibly for mixed breed dogs.


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