As I write this blog, my dog Ben has his head firmly planted on my lap, just in case I plan to go anywhere. One of my other dogs, June, is at my feet, occasionally poking me with her nose, as if to verify that I am still in place. If I get up, I will have a canine escort, with two large, happy dogs accompanying me to the bathroom, laundry room or mailbox. Separation anxiety? Perhaps, but this is as severe as it gets for these two. If I leave them alone in the house, they retire to their beds (or if they are lucky, the couch) and patiently wait for me to come home.
What happens, though, when a dog’s desire to be by his owner’s side is so strong that he panics when left alone? I can answer this question both from the standpoint of a veterinarian and a pet owner. Dogs with severe separation anxiety are capable of extreme destruction when they are left alone. I have experienced this first hand. My old Jack Russell Terrier had terrible separation anxiety. I will never forget the day my husband and I came home from work to a house that looked like it had been vandalized. Door frames, window blinds, and window frames were shredded. We went from room to room in disbelief, amazed that one small dog was able to cause hundreds of dollars worth of damage in an afternoon. This was separation anxiety at its worst.
Separation anxiety is exactly that, extreme anxiety that is provoked when the dog is left alone. These dogs are essentially having a severe panic attack that manifests itself in a wholehearted effort to GET OUT. In my office, I frequently hear stories of dogs escaping from their crates, chewing and scratching up doors and shredding couch cushions. Often, pet owners may interpret this behavior as “spiteful”, but it is, in fact, the work of separation anxiety.
All sound too, too familiar? If this sounds like your pet, what can you do to help alleviate the anxiety? First, you must consult your veterinarian. Separation anxiety can be managed in a lot of cases, but it is not an overnight fix, and you will need the support and advice of your veterinarian. The treatment generally consists of medications to diminish the anxiety, and behavior modification exercises to condition a dog to become more comfortable with being left alone. Next, you will need a large dose of patience. Anxiety is not quickly or easily remedied, but with time and persistence it may be improved. Believe me, I wish there was a magic cure – but unfortunately, this is a case where only time and effort will yield results.