Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Are We All Talking About the Same Cases?
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2007
Diane Frank, DMV, DACVB
Université de Montréal, Faculté de Médecine Vétérinaire, Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vétérinaire
St-Hyacinthe, QC, Canada

Undesirable behaviours that occur when the owner is absent have been referred to as separation anxiety, separation-related behaviours or problems, isolation anxiety, separation reactions, separation anxiety syndrome, and attachment problems. Some authors suggest that there is an anxiety component, whereas others omit the term altogether or even disagree that there is truly anxiety. This presentation using video clips generated by owners, will illustrate the range of behaviours exhibited by dogs during owner absences. The importance and necessity of obtaining videotapes will be discussed.

Definition

The necessary conditions for a diagnosis of separation anxiety are physical or behavioural signs of distress exhibited by the animal only in the absence of or during lack of access to the owner. Sufficient conditions for a diagnosis of separation anxiety are consistent, intensive destruction, elimination, vocalization, or salivation exhibited only in the virtual or actual absence of the owner. Behaviours are most severe within the first 15-20 minutes of separation, and many anxiety-related (autonomic hyper-reactivity, increased motor activity, and increased vigilance and scanning) may become apparent as the client displays behaviours associated with the intention to leave.

Diagnosis

Few authors have specifically addressed whether they believe that separation anxiety represents normal behaviour or a behavioural disorder, and age of onset of the condition is rarely mentioned. Information on the actual duration and severity of signs following the owner's departure in dogs with separation anxiety is still lacking because only 1 study looking at videotapes of 20 dogs has been published. Information is also lacking on the progression of clinical signs over time for a given patient. The diagnosis for most authors seems to rely almost exclusively on owner reports, and the actual behaviours of dogs are rarely videotaped to confirm the diagnosis or assess the response to treatment. This means that different clinical syndromes could perhaps have been grouped under the same category. For example, dogs that vocalize when left alone may be doing so in response to various stimuli in their environment and not truly exhibiting separation anxiety. This inaccurate categorization could explain the discrepancy in opinions on how to treat separation anxiety, as well as explain some treatment failures.

Importance of Obtaining Video Clips

Some of the video clips presented will illustrate that relying on the fact that a dog has eaten treats during an owner absence is not a reliable predictor that the dog is not anxious. Other clips will show dogs vocalizing for different reasons that are identifiable only by visualizing their behaviours and body language.

Review of videotapes obtained during owner absence seems essential to confirm the diagnosis of separation anxiety in dogs. They are also useful to encourage owner compliance, because the owner can actually see the behaviours that occur before and after pharmacologic treatment. Videotapes objectively document the response to pharmacologic treatment and allow the clinician to adjust dosage when necessary.

Some authors will label dogs with separation anxiety even if the dog only exhibits signs of distress associated with a second departure or if clients arrive home later than usual. The dog is fine during the regular daily routine and does not destroy, vocalize or eliminate except if there is a change of schedule. Do we really know that these dogs are fine during regular routines without videotaping? Another added advantage of filming is that it can be used to document signs of anxiety, such as pacing and panting, during an owner's absence. Owners may in fact be unaware that their dog is distressed (i.e., pacing and panting) during their absence if they do not see concrete evidence of distress (i.e., saliva, urine, or feces) on their return or do not receive complaints about excessive vocalization while they are gone.

References

1.  Borchelt PL, Voith VL. Diagnosis and treatment of separation-related behavior problems in dogs. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract (1982); 12: 625-635.

2.  Bradshaw JWS, McPherson JA, Casey RA, et al. Aetiology of separation-related behaviour in domestic dogs. Vet Rec (2002); 151: 43-46.

3.  Flannigan G, Dodman NH. Risk factors and behaviors associated with separation anxiety in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc (2001); 219: 460-466.

4.  Horwitz DF. Separation-related problems in dogs. In: Horwitz DF, Mills DS, Heath S, eds. BSAVA manual of canine and feline behavioural medicine. Gloucester, UK: British Small Animal Veterinary Association, (2002); 154-163.

5.  Lund JD, Jorgensen MC. Behaviour patterns and time course of activity in dogs with separation problems. Appl Anim Behav Sci (1999); 63: 219-236.

6.  Schwartz S. Separation anxiety syndrome in dogs and cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc (2003); 222: 1526-1532.

7.  Papurt ML. An alternative look at separation anxiety [lett]. J Am Vet Med Assoc (2001); 219: 910.

8.  Overall KL. Clinical behavioral medicine for small animals. St. Louis: Mosby Year Book Inc, (1997); 518.

Speaker Information
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Diane Frank, DMV, DACVB
University of Montreal
QC, Canada


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