Canis ISSN: 2398-2942

Separation anxiety

Contributor(s): Daniel Mills, Karen Overall

Introduction

  • Separation anxiety describes the problem behaviors associated with an extreme distress response following the departure of a human, usually the owner.
  • Common signs: agitation around the time of departure followed by defecation, salivation, urination, destructiveness and vocalization when finally left alone.
  • Other signs: signs associated with a high level of attachment and hypervigilance around the owner, such as:
    • Persistent following.
    • Attention-seeking behaviors.
      It is important to differentiate this problem from complaints with similar signs such as loss of house training, or arousal from external stimuli in the owner's absence.
  • Prognosis: generally good if clients are able to implement a suitable treatment program.
Print off the owner factsheet on Separation anxiety Separation anxiety to give to your client.
Follow the diagnostic tree for Separation Anxiety in dogs Separation Anxiety in dogs.

Pathogenesis

Predisposing factors

General
  • More common in dogs re-homed before they are 12 months old, (or repeatedly re-homed).
  • May arise following separation and return from a period in kennel accommodation.
  • The condition may develop when there is a significant reduction in the amount of time shared together by dog and owner, eg owner returns to work following a period of unemployment or sick leave.

Pathophysiology

  • Increased attachment and/or anxious tendencies in the dog, combine with period of owner absence to produce a distress response → a range of visceral reactions.
  • Failure of these behaviors to alleviate the distress associated with separation → to an escalation of the response to a maximal or abnormal level.
  • With time, the dog learns to associate certain owner behaviors with their impending departure and the associated distress. It then may show signs of anxiety or distress before the owner leaves.
  • The chronic condition is almost certainly associated with the development of an associated mood change in the individual and ceases to be a simple emotional reaction.
  • If the owner punishes the dog when they return because of the destruction and/or mess, then the dog will learn to associate such an environment and the presence of the owner with punishment.
  • The dog is then likely to show appeasement gestures towards the owner when they return. These behaviors are commonly misinterpreted as signs that the dog "knows he's done wrong".
  • Destructiveness and mess are the product of the dog's behavior at a time of extreme arousal and it is unlikely that such behavior is amenabale to control via punishment.
  • The punishment may then serve to actually heighten anxiety in the owner's absence and exacerbate the problem, since the dog awaits the return of the owner in the presence of a recognizable signal for punishment.
  • Noradrenergic, dopaminergic, serotonergic and GABA-ergic neural systems are implicated in the mediation of the anxiety and mood states of this condition.
  • Noradrenergic stimulation → signs associated with hypervigilance.
  • Dopaminergic stimulation is associated with the integration of stressful signals and the production of structured and persistent behavioral responses.
  • Reduced serotoninergic activity is associated with depressed mood, particularly as a result of chronic anxiety.
  • The GABA system is inhibitory and involved in the suppression of the primary symptoms of anxiety. Its relationship with the chronic symptoms of mood depression is less clearly defined although there are inevitably associations between the associated neural systems.

Timecourse

  • Initial episode may be extremely severe if associated with a panic reaction. Alternatively, problem may become gradually more severe.

Diagnosis

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Treatment

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Prevention

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Outcomes

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Further Reading

Publications

Refereed papers

  • Recent references from PubMed and VetMedResource.
  • Blackwell E, Casey R A & Bradshaw J W S (2006) Controlled trial of behavioural therapy for separation-related disorders in dogs. Vet Rec 158 (16), 551-554 PubMed.
  • Gaultier E, Bonnafous L, Bougrat L, Lafont C & Pageat P (2005) Comparison of the efficacy of a synthetic dog-appeasing pheromone with clomipramine for the treatment of separation-related disorders in dogs. Vet Rec 156 (17), 533-538 PubMed.
  • Flannigan G & Dodman N H (2001) Risk factors and behaviors associated with separation anxieties in dogs. JAVMA 219 (4), 460-466 PubMed.
  • Landsberg G M (2001) Clomipramine - beyond separation anxiety. JAAHA 37 (4), 313-318 PubMed.
  • Overall K L, Dunham A E & Frank D (2001) Frequency of nonspecific clinical signs in dogs with separation anxiety, thunderstorm phobia and noises phobia, alone or in combination. JAVMA 219 (4), 467-473 VetMedResource.
  • McCrave E A (1991) Diagnostic criteria for separation anxiety in the dog. Vet Clinics N America (Small Anim Pract) 21 (2), 247-255 PubMed.
  • Voith V L & Borchelt P L (1985) Separation Anxiety in Dogs. Comp Cont. Ed Pract Vet 7 (1), 42-52 VetMedResource.

Other sources of information

  • Lund J D, Jorgenson M C (1997)Separation anxiety in pet dogs.In:Proceedings of the First International Conference on Veterinary Behavioral Medicine.D S Mills, S E Heath & L J Harrington (eds). Potters Bar: UFAW. pp 133-142
  • Simpson B (1997)Treatment of separation anxiety in dogs with clomipramine.In:Proceedings of the First International Conference on Veterinary Behavioral Medicine.D S Mills, S E Heath & L J Harrington (eds). Potters Bar: UFAW. pp 143-154.


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