Adrienne is a certified professional dog trainer, dog behavior consultant and former veterinarian assistant for an AAHA animal hospital.
Separation Anxiety or Separation-Related Problem?
Separation anxiety has become an umbrella term used to describe a variety of types of distress exhibited by dogs upon being left alone.
The term has often been loosely used to describe dogs suffering from isolation distress, true separation anxiety, not true separation anxiety, etc.
For example, in isolation distress, the dog struggles being left alone, but the company of any human will alleviate their stress (making doggy daycare a sensible option), whereas, in dogs with "true separation anxiety" the affected dogs are panic-stricken upon being separated from a particular person (or dog) often requiring behavior modification and medications.
Then, you may have cases where the dog barks for several minutes or maybe howls when the owner leaves, but then settles and even naps, which may be classified as a case of "non-true separation anxiety."
To prevent confusion, many professionals have been favoring the term "separation-related problems (SRP)" which offers a broader basis, technically describing any problematic behavior exhibited when the dog is left alone.
This makes sense considering that, after all, there can be different presentations of dogs exhibiting distress upon being left alone which may stem from diverse emotions such as mild distress, fear, frustration or full-blown panic.
Before delving into the signs of "separation anxiety" it's therefore important considering that signs can vary in severity, going from mild, moderate and severe and that there may be cases where, rather than being distressed from being left alone, dogs may be simply bored, have too much pent-up energy or haven't been completely housetrained.
Separation related disorder in dogs is a multi-faceted phenomenon. Dogs can react to the absence of their owner due to different inner states such as fear, panic or frustration.
— Lenkei R, Faragó T, Bakos V, Pongrácz P
11 Potential Signs Your Dog Has "Separation Anxiety"
These are some commonly reported signs of separation-related problems in dogs. Not all dogs will show these signs, and some dogs may show some, while others will show other signs. These signs aren't necessary "diagnostic" of separation distress.
1) Anxiety to Pre-Departure Cues
Dogs with separation anxiety dread being left alone, they are therefore sensitized to their owner's pre-departure cues.
In other words, they often show signs of anxiety as owners engage in their pre-departure rituals such as putting shoes on, getting a jacket from a closet and grabbing the car keys.
Did you know? Anxiety is different than fear in that, anxiety is a state of apprehension and worry taking place in anticipation of a threat, whereas fear takes place right in the moment of facing the threat. Both anxiety and fear may overlap.
Prior to, and after being left alone, many dogs suffering when left alone will start pacing and circling. Pacing consists of back-and-forth walking, while circling consists of walking in circles.
These dogs are likely engaging in these repetitive motor activities due to feeling anxious or frustrated. The behaviors are often exhibited nearby the door although at times the dog may be frantically looking for the owners in other rooms.
In mild cases, the barking may be intermittent, while in moderate cases, the barking tends to be loud and rather persistent often bothering neighbors.
The vocalizations may include whining, barking or howling.
There is the likelihood that the type of vocalizations exhibited may provide clues about the dog's inner state.
For example, barking may be seen in cases driven by frustration (because of the owner being an inaccessible resource), while whining would be more indicative of fear.
Howling is often a sign of a dog trying to touch basis with his social group when being left behind. This form of vocalization is used in wolves as it allows long-distance communication when an individual has been separated from the pack (Fox, 1971; Mech, 1977)
This open-mouth breathing is often seen when dogs are hot or have exercised. In a dog suffering from separation anxiety, the panting tends to increase as time goes by as a result of exhaustion.
5) Refusal to Eat
This may not apply to all dogs, but several are in such an anxious state that they will not eat or drink when left alone.
This occurs because of antagonism of parasympathetic effects due to sympathetic arousal, explains board-certified veterinarian Dr. Overall in an article for Veterinary Practice News.
It can also happen that the dog is in such distress that it may contribute to nausea.
It's not unusual for these cases, that once the owner returns, as the dog reaches a calmer state, he may then go grab the cookies left on the floor or may start drinking a large volume of water to compensate for not eating or drinking during the owners' absence.
However, as mentioned, it's important to point out that some dogs are able to eat no matter how stressed they feel. These dogs may be over threshold, yet will eat quickly and nervously.
6) A Depressive State
Some dogs suffering from separation anxiety will enter a depressive-like state. These dogs may drool, pant, freeze and withdraw without exhibiting the most evident signs such as accidents around the house, destruction and excess barking.
Because these dogs tend to suffer in silence, owners may not seek help as much as dogs showing more problematic behaviors. This could mean that these dogs are more profoundly affected.
7) Inappropriate Urination and Defecation
The term "inappropriate urination and defecation is often used to depict dogs peeing and pooping in the home. In simple words, the "dog is having accidents."
Although the word inappropriate makes this sound as if the dog is behaving in an undesirable matter, we must remember that having accidents when left alone is not the dog acting "out of spite" or "revenge pooping" because he hasn't been taken along for a car ride.
In reality, dogs who pee or poop when left alone are often in distress, they're dealing with their worst fear. "It's symptomatic of a general anxiety-like state." (Bradshaw et al., 2002)
These dogs normally exhibit a good level of bladder and bowel control when the owners are home. Affected dogs may defecate in the home even if they defecated when taken on a walk prior to being left alone.
Dogs who are anxious may also drool. The drooling occurs as a region in the central nucleus of the amygdala (the area responsible for a dog's response to danger, Joseph LeDoux, PhD 2015) contributes to salivation.
Drool may not always be present in visible signs. For instance, sometimes dog owners mistake drool for pee.
Other signs include finding wet areas on the carpet or the dog presenting with wet fur on the chest.
9) Damage to Entryways
Dogs who suffer from separation anxiety struggle from being separated from a particular person. Because doors separate them from the person they have formed a dysfunctional attachment, they'll often vent their frustration towards entryways (exit frustration).
You may therefore find an abundance of teeth and claw marks on the doors owners often exit from. Areas typically chewed and scratched include exit points such as doors, windows and gates.
10) Escape Attempts
Dogs may injure themselves in their desperate efforts to be reunited with their owners. These dogs are literally trying to escape and this can lead to bleeding gums and nails as they scratch and bite doors.
Some dogs have even been reported of breaking through windows.
Dogs who desperately try to escape may present with uneven nail wear and scored teeth.
11) Overly Enthusiastic Greetings
When dogs with separation anxiety greet their owners after they have been away, they'll throw out an exaggerated greeting.
What to Do If Your Dog Shows Signs
As seen, dogs may display a variety of signs of separation distress. However, as mentioned, not all dogs showing these signs necessarily suffer from separation distress.
A dog who chews stuff when left alone may be young and bored. A dog who has accidents around the house may be not fully potty trained. A dog who barks when left alone may be barking at triggers or may be fearful of noises. A dog who chews on window sills may be territorial or exhibiting barrier frustration as a result of seeing people or dogs pass by from inside the house.
If you think your dog is showing signs of separation distress, please record your dog's behavior when left alone for a brief period (most dogs show signs in the first 10 minutes) and show it to your vet or even better, a veterinary behaviorist for proper diagnosis and treatment.
In the meanwhile, if you want to be on top of the game, discover several tips for dogs suffering from anxiety when left alone.
- Lenkei R, Faragó T, Bakos V, Pongrácz P. Separation-related behavior of dogs shows association with their reactions to everyday situations that may elicit frustration or fear. Sci Rep. 2021
- Lund JD, Jørgensen MC. Behaviour patterns and time course of activity in dogs with separation problems. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 1999
- Lenkei R, Gomez SA, Pongrácz P. Fear vs. frustration–possible factors behind canine separation related behaviour. Behav. Process. 2018
- Lenkei, R., Alvarez Gomez, S., Pongrácz, P. 2018. Fear vs. frustration – Possible factors behind canine separation related behaviour. Behavioural Processes, 157: 115-124. doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2018.08.002
- Pongrácz P, Gómez SA, Lenkei R. Separation-related behaviour indicates the effect of functional breed selection in dogs (Canis familiaris) Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 2020
- Pongrácz P, Lenkei R, Marx A, Faragó T. Should I whine or should I bark? Qualitative and quantitative differences between the vocalizations of dogs with and without separation-related symptoms. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 2017
- Palestrini, C., et al., Video analysis of dogs with separation-related behaviors. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. (2010),
- Psychology Today, Joseph E LeDoux Ph.D. The Amygdala Is Not the Brain's Fear Center 2015
- Today's Veterinary Practice, Veterinary Behavior Medications: Which Medication, Which Patient? Karen L. Overall
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2022 Adrienne Farricelli