Separation anxiety in dogs

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Separation anxiety in dogs describes a condition in which a dog exhibits distress and behavior problems when separated from its handler. Separation anxiety typically manifests within 30 minutes of departure of the handler.[1] It is not fully understood why some dogs suffer from separation anxiety and others do not.[2] The behavior may be secondary to an underlying medical condition.[3] With chronic stressors in dog's lives, impairments can occur on their physiological health. Increased stress in the animal alters their hormone levels and thus decreases the animals immunity to various health problems.[4] A visit to the veterinarian is always recommended if a dog's behavior changes suddenly.

Typical behaviors[edit]

Dogs suffering from separation anxiety typically exhibit these behaviors:

  • Following handler excessively
  • Pacing
  • Excessive salivating
  • Excessive shaking (usually seen in smaller breeds; Chihuahua, Yorkshire Terrier)
  • Vomiting
  • Destructive chewing
  • Barking, howling, whining
  • Urination, defecation in the house
  • Coprophagia[5]
  • Self harm
  • Digging and scratching at doors or windows in an attempt to reunite with the handler[6]


The cause of dog separation anxiety is unknown, but may be triggered by:

  • a traumatic event[7]
  • a change in routine[6]
  • major life change (e.g., new home, new baby, death of a family member, abandonment to a shelter[5])
  • extreme attachment or dependency on the owner[8]


Dogs suffering from separation anxiety are often "owner addicts". Setting boundaries will boost a dog's confidence and prepare it to be on its own.[9]

Various techniques have been suggested for helping dogs cope with separation anxiety:

  • Leaving and returning home quietly, without fuss[10]
  • Providing plenty of exercise, play, and fun[11]
  • Practicing leaving to adjust the dog to your departure
  • Feeding the dog before you leave
  • Leaving the radio/TV on
  • Medicating the dog

As of 2012, a San Diego cable channel is offering DOGTV, a cable-based television channel especially for dogs whose owners are away. The programming, created with the help of dog behavior specialists, is color-adjusted to appeal to dogs, and features 3–6 minute segments designed to relax, to stimulate, and to expose the dog to scenes of everyday life such as doorbells or riding in a vehicle. The channel's proponents have indicated positive reviews from a humane society shelter in Escondido, California.[12] The "doggie resort" hosts of the opening party for Dog TV in San Diego reported that some of their dogs seem to enjoy watching the animated series SpongeBob SquarePants. The show's creators anticipate that dogs will watch Dog TV intermittently, throughout the day, rather than remaining glued to the set.[13][14][15]


Dogs can also be treated with psychotropic drugs, such as anti-depressants or anti-anxiety drugs. A recent trend in treatment is the use of psychotropic drugs in animals to treat similar psychological disorders to those displayed in humans and mitigate the behavior related to these disorders. These connections between human and animal psychopharmacology can help to explain how similar neurobiology can be among different species.[16]

Similar to humans, Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, or SSRIs, or tricyclic anti-depressants are used to treat anxious and depressive behavior in animals. One study tracked the effectiveness of clomipramine, a tricyclic anti-depressant, in reducing compulsive behaviors through administration of a tricyclic anti-depressant in dogs. Behaviors displayed by these dogs include but are not limited to tail-chasing, shadow-chasing, circling and chewing. The study found that after one month of daily administration of the tricyclic anti-depressant clomipramine, these compulsive behaviors decreased or disappeared in 16 out of 24 dogs. Slight to moderate behavior mitigation was shown in 5 dogs. These results suggest that clomipramine can be beneficial to canines displaying anxiety behaviors.[17]

Anxiety disorders can also be treated with dog appeasing pheromones similar to those given off by their mothers.[18] The pheromone containing products are sold in collars and sprays under the brand name Adaptil.[18]

Fluoxetine treatment[edit]

Fluoxetine, an SSRI used by humans under the brand name Prozac, is now prescribed to dogs under the brand name Reconcile. Another study found that dogs who were being treated with both Reconcile and Behavioral Modulation Treatment compared to dogs receiving a placebo and behavioral therapy called Behavior Modulation Treatment, were much more successful at mitigating behaviors related to separation anxiety. After 8 weeks of treatment, 72% of the dogs given fluoxetine displayed fewer adverse behaviors (e.g., excessive salivation, inappropriate urination/defecation) while only 50% of the placebo group had mitigated these behaviors.[19]

In another study conducted in 2015, dogs expressing symptoms of separation anxiety were given fluoxetine tablets and a standard behavior modification plan for two months.[20] Owner interviews, spatial cognitive bias tests, questionnaires and relations between cognitive bias and drug treatment were all taken into consideration. Results showed that the clinical treatment of fluoxetine seemed to produce a shift in cognitive bias in the canine subjects, emphasizing that pharmacological therapy not only can positively affect behavior, but also an animal's psychological state.

Benzodiazepine treatment[edit]

Benzodiazepines, such as alprazolam, are anxiolytic medications. Benzodiazepines have also shown to be beneficial in the treatment of stimuli-evoking anxiety, or phobias. One study on storm phobias found that 30 out of the 32 canines involved in the study had reductions in anxiety behavior after being treated with alprazolam. However, this study suggests that the best way to benefit from benzodiazepine treatment is when it is being used in conjunction with Behavior Modulation Treatment and an anti-depressant.[21]

Imepitoin, also known by its brand name Pexion, is a recently developed drug licensed for treating primarily canine epilepsy. Imepitoin is a low-affinity agonist at the benzodiazepine site of the GABAA receptor, meaning it is able to loosely attach itself to the GABA receptor and mimic GABA. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter that is used to counteract glutamate, the excitatory neurotransmitter responsible for which excessive levels can lead to anxious behaviors and can cause long-term anxiety disorders.[22] Because imepitoin is known to have anti-convulsant effects on laboratory rats and is already an anti-epilepsy drug treatment, researchers were curious as to whether or not it could decrease a canine's levels of separation anxiety, as one symptom of separation anxiety in dogs is excessive shaking, primarily in smaller breeds.

One study conducted in 2016 did not test its effects on separation anxiety specifically, but rather investigated its abilities to reduce fear and anxiety-related behaviors via an online survey completed by the canine participants' owners, alongside measuring how many seizures per month the dogs experienced.[23] Results showed a significant reduction of average seizures per month, but no significant differences in behavior regarding the five anxiety-related measures examined (dog-directed fear, stranger-directed fear, non-social fear, pain sensitivity and separation-related behavior), concluding that imepitoin did not definitively affect anxiety-related behavior in dogs. However, it was noted by researchers conducting the study that the participants' anxiety levels could not have been high enough in the beginning of the study for the dogs to show a significant reduction in anxiety-related behavior.

Another research study in June 2017 tested only for imepitoin's abilities to reduce anxiety-related behaviors in canines,[24] but unlike the previous study mentioned, researchers had evaluated the dogs personally for canine temperament using a Positive and Negative Activation Scale (PANAS) rather than having the participants' owners evaluate the dogs through an online survey. Average weekly reaction (AWR) scores in response to anxiety-inducing stimuli and owners' diary entries were also taken into account. Results displayed significantly lower AWR scores for anxiety alongside a reduction in negative activation on the PANAS, concluding that imepitoin is a drug-therapy option to positively reduce canines' anxiety-related behaviors. However, no research has been found to support that imepitoin is currently being prescribed to treat separation anxiety in canines.

Nelumbinis semen as treatment[edit]

One cause of separation anxiety in canines is chronic stress. A study in 2012 tested nelumbinis semen, the seeds of the herb Nelumbo nucifera, and its anti-depressant effects on animals experiencing stress.[25] This study did not test directly on canines, but rather rats, and aimed to apply the principles found by the study to other animals such as dogs. The study, however, did test oral toxicity specifically on canines. After testing different dosage amounts of the nelumbinis semen, scientists determined that 400 mg per the animal's weight in kilograms was the most ideal amount to lower immobility when the animal was faced with a stressful situation. In addition, nelumbinis semen was not found toxic when administered to dogs. Based on these findings, it is possible that if more research was put into studying herbal remedies such as nelumbinis semen, it is possible that alternative and "natural" ingredients could be used as a substitute for drug-based therapy.

Adverse effects[edit]

The most common adverse effects related to fluoxetine treatment were decreased appetite, experienced by 23% of the dogs in the study, and lethargy, experienced by 39% of the dogs in the study. Some canines actually experienced worsening anxiety and aggressive behavior.[26]

In the study with clomipramine, 9 dogs underwent withdrawal after discontinuing treatment. 5 of those dogs were successful in overcoming the withdrawal, while 4 dogs relapsed.[17] With regards to these results it is important to note that these sample sizes were relatively small. However, these studies have given us a look at one of the many variables regarding psychoactive drug withdrawal.[17][21]

With regards to benzodiazepine treatment, it has been found that canines can develop dependence to these types of medications and go through a similar withdrawal process as humans. For example, their seizure threshold is lowered and anxiety relapse can occur after stopping benzodiazepine treatment.[27] Similarly to treatment of human anxiety disorders, benzodiazepines are a last resort treatment, due to their addiction potential.[16]

Other scientific findings[edit]

A study conducted in 2016 used primary metabolite profiling through a combination of liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry to identify possible biomarkers for anxiety-related behavior.[28] Primary metabolites are directly involved in more "natural" processes, such as reproduction and development,[29] so abnormal differences could result in differences of mental development. Results identified changes in thirteen metabolites between dogs who had separation anxiety and those who did not; these changes included differences in hypoxanthine, indoxysulfate and phospholipids, all which control oxidative stress, tryptophan levels, and lipid metabolisms. Researchers were able to come to the conclusion that biomarkers such as primary metabolites play a prominent role in canine anxiety.


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