What Causes Separation Anxiety in My Dog?

Updated: Sep 22

An extremely common question from owners with dogs suffering from separation anxiety is “What causes separation anxiety in my dog?” It’s really hard to understand why the dogs you’ve shared your life with in the past were just fine being left alone, and now your current dog isn’t. The answer to the question is that no one knows 100% as to why dog separation anxiety occurs, although we have some pretty good theories on it.



What is separation anxiety for dogs?

child and dog

Separation anxiety disorder in children is considered a mental health problem. This is different from the normal separation issues that many young children go through as a developmental phase in that it interferes with day-to-day life, isn’t “grown out of”, and can cause physical problems such as digestive issues or headaches.


Dogs can also suffer from separation anxiety disorder. Although children and dogs aren’t the same, there are a lot of similarities in how separation anxiety presents in both. Both children and dogs with separation anxiety disorder are fearful about being alone, display panic behaviors, or show emotional outbursts when separated by caregivers, and can suffer from physical ailments caused by the stress and anxiety of their separation. With both dogs and children, separation anxiety isn’t something that goes away on its own and will often become worse over time.


With dogs the diagnosis is obtained through watching behavior when the dog is left alone. What stress signals are being given off as the owner prepares to leave the house, and how does the dog behave once they walk out the door? We like to know what behaviors dogs display when the owners are home, and compare them to behaviors when owners are absent. A dog who barks out the window at a passersby in both situations won’t necessarily indicate a dog is suffering from separation anxiety.


But behaviors such as barking and howling, house soiling, destruction, pacing and jumping at doors and windows that occur throughout the duration of every absence are symptoms of separation anxiety disorder, especially if they don’t occur at other times.



How do dogs get separation anxiety?


The answer is that we don’t definitively know what causes dog anxiety, but we have some theories that are based partly on research done with the origins of separation anxiety in children, and partly on anecdotal patterns noticed by dog behavior professionals.


Medical issue

If there’s a sudden on-set of separation anxiety, the first thing to do is visit the veterinarian and rule out a medical condition. Geriatric dogs with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction can present with separation anxiety. Other medical conditions can trigger separation anxiety. Additionally, health issues may have symptoms that can look a lot like separation anxiety. For instance, a fully housetrained dog that suddenly has accidents when the owner is gone could be symptoms of a urinary tract infection. The dog doesn’t have accidents when the owners are there because there is someone available to take the dog out.



Genetics

We know that dogs are incredibly social animals. It’s one of the reasons that dogs make such wonderful pets; they crave our attention and company. Even pet dogs that aren’t snuggly and are a bit on the aloof side still desire to spend time with us – even if it’s on opposite sides of the room.


Additionally, dogs are utterly dependent on us for everything; food, water, shelter, enrichment, exercise and safety. However, although most dogs don’t suffer from separation anxiety, the fact that dogs are genetically programed to need and want us predisposes them as a species to develop excessive anxiety when their owner leaves them.




We also know that in humans there is an inherited anxiety component. UNC Health psychiatric epidemiologist Anna Bauer, PhD, MPH states, “Children of parents who have a diagnosed anxiety disorder can be as much as seven times more likely to develop an anxious disorder themselves.”

Mental health professionals generally believe that while genetics play a role in anxiety, there are also other factors that most likely trigger it, such as the environment and specific events. This is probably the case with dogs that develop separation anxiety as well.

dog and DNA


Developmental deficiency

We know from research that a stressed pregnant dog is likely to release stress hormones that will be absorbed by the developing puppies, and make it more likely that they will become anxious adult dogs. This would apply to situations such as a pregnant dog living in a kennel as in a commercial breeder or an animal shelter, as an example.


Additionally, stress caused to puppies after they are born either by poor mothering skills or a stressful environment may be a factor. Puppies born and raised in a kennel environment with loud noises would be an example of this. Being removed from the litter or from the mother dog too early could also be a component as to what causes dog anxiety. Research on children supports the theory that stressful childhoods may cause anxiety later in life. While the studies are done with people, and not on dogs, there’s no reason to believe that there isn’t a correlation with stressful puppyhoods causing anxiety.




In one study on the impact stressful childhoods had on anxiety researchers stated: “We found that experiencing emotional trauma, physical trauma, and low socioeconomic status in childhood were associated with increased anxiety symptoms in late adulthood.” (Lähdepuro, A., Savolainen, K., Lahti-Pulkkinen, M. et al. The Impact of Early Life Stress on Anxiety Symptoms in Late Adulthood)

street puppies


The dog was never left alone

This has become more common with Covid puppies obtained during the pandemic at a time where work and school happened virtually and the puppy was rarely, if ever, left alone. A dog that has never been left by an owner is much more likely to panic when it eventually happens because they haven't had the opportunity to develop coping skills for being left alone.




The dog experienced trauma

Events that happen when the dog is alone can trigger separation anxiety. Even a one-time event can be enough to be traumatizing. I was in a car accident with my dogs. My dog Whimsy became extremely anxious about even getting into the car after that. This was despite having ridden in the car almost daily for 4 years, and despite the fact that she wasn’t physically injured.


What causes separation anxiety in dog traumatic events could be something easily identified such as a house fire, tornado, or earth quake. But it could be an event that an owner doesn’t know about – such as a contractor working next door, or road repair right in front of the home. It could also be something that an owner doesn’t realize is frightening to the dog such as deliveries to the home when the owner isn’t there.



The dog experienced loss

There are many cases of dog separation anxiety being triggered by the loss of a family member. It could be as significant as a death of a human or another dog in the household, or loss caused by a family member moving out. Dogs are very sensitive to change in the family dynamic and their grief can trigger anxiety.


Additionally, we see separation anxiety in dogs adopted from shelters and rescues. In many cases it’s probable the dog was surrendered because the family couldn’t cope with their separation anxiety (and most likely weren’t honest about why they were giving the dog up).


However, it’s not unreasonable to expect that the trauma of losing their family and home


could be one of the causes of dog separation anxiety.

dog laying on back of couch


Unpredictable schedule

Dogs really like routine. If there’s a abrupt change in the routine out of the blue such as a longer than usual absence, or an absence that happens at an unpredictable time, it could be stressful enough to trigger separation anxiety in some dogs.


Did I give my dog separation anxiety?

It’s easy when you think about “what causes separation anxiety in my dog?” and wonder if it’s something you did that caused it. But the answer is no! Because there’s most likely a strong genetic predisposition towards developing separation anxiety, it’s possible it could have been triggered no matter what you did or didn’t do.


What’s important is that you recognize that your dog has a serious mental health disorder and take steps to help. Remember that separation anxiety is not going to improve if treatment isn’t implemented. Now that you know your dog is suffering, you’re in a great position to work with a professional with separation anxiety experience to get a training program started.

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