If you notice your puppy exhibiting anxious behaviors like excessive vocalizing, distress as you prepare to leave the house, or destruction of items while you're gone, your puppy may be experiencing separation anxiety. Puppy separation anxiety is common and successfully treatable with a combination of desensitizing behavior training and medication. Puppies adopted before eight weeks of age, mixed breeds, and puppies adopted from shelters are at the highest risk. Be careful not to confuse normal puppy behavior with a separation anxiety disorder. Showing your vet a video of your puppy taken when they are left home alone is the best way to reach a diagnosis.
What Is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety in puppies occurs when your dog exhibits significant distress in response to being left alone. Affected puppies will typically feel over-attachment to one or more family members and are easily upset by their comings and goings. Behavior symptomatic of separation anxiety is often triggered by a change in routines, such as more time spent away from home because of a new job, a new dog introduction, or a new baby, which can cause your puppy stress. Problems develop when the amount of time you spend with your puppy changes.
Animal behaviorists are careful to distinguish between separation behaviors and separation anxiety. Just because your puppy is acting out when left alone doesn’t mean that it is because they are suffering from separation anxiety. It is normal for your puppy to whine as you leave the house or miss you while you’re gone. Separation anxiety is far more severe and can be debilitating for your puppy.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Puppies
It's important to closely examine your puppy's behavior to determine whether it is suffering from separation anxiety or is displaying typical, expected puppy behaviors.
If your puppy has separation anxiety, it may follow you around the house and become increasingly upset as you prepare to leave. Your puppy may excessively whimper, shake, or pace as it sees you pick up your keys or put on your coat.
Excessive whining, howling, or barking can indicate your puppy is experiencing separation anxiety. Extreme vocalizations will sometimes last up to 15 minutes after being left alone, but your puppy may be able to calm down after some time.
House Training Accidents
Some puppies may have accidents caused by the stress of separation anxiety, but it's important to consider other factors before deeming an accident a symptom. While a symptom of separation anxiety, it is normal for all puppies to have accidents. House-trained dogs older than nine months can hold their bladder for up to 8 hours, but younger puppies cannot.
Destruction of Personal Items
Many puppies with separation anxiety will try to destroy your belongings. This destruction isn't retaliation for being left alone, but rather, because these items smell like you, your puppy's anxiety might be triggered, prompting displacement behaviors. Puppies may also seek out objects that smell like you because your scent comforts them. Some behaviorists suggest that separation behaviors such as emptying your sock drawer or chewing up toilet paper may arise out of boredom and not separation anxiety. Be sure to observe your puppy closely to draw the critical distinction.
Causes of Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety in puppies has several explanations, some clearer than others.
- Shelters: If you adopted your puppy from a shelter, prior trauma in its life, abandonment, or otherwise, may cause separation anxiety.
- Trauma: Any single traumatic event while left alone is enough to trigger separation anxiety in puppies.
- Sudden life changes: Things that disrupt a puppy's routine, like a new baby, divorce, or death, can give a puppy anxiety.
- Premature separation: Puppies who are separated from their litter prematurely are more likely to develop separation anxiety.
- Genetics: Sometimes, anxiety can be explained by genetics. Some puppies are just more anxiety-prone than others.
Diagnosing Separation Anxiety in Puppies
To diagnose your puppy with separation anxiety, observe its symptoms closely and consult with your vet for an expert opinion. Your vet may ask that you set up a video camera to film your pet while you're away and bring in the footage to examine your puppy's solo behavior.
Puppies should never be punished for any anxiety-based behavior, as punishment will usually make the issue worse. If your puppy exhibits destructive separation behaviors, you can take measured steps to reduce the problem.
Desensitizing your puppy to your leaving/absence is key to improving anxious behaviors. For example, pick up your car keys 50 times—but then don't leave. Put on your coat or open the door a dozen times, then stay inside. Repetition of these cues makes them less meaningful, so the puppy will be calmer when you actually leave. Building your puppy's tolerance to your absence incrementally may also be helpful. You can try going for one minute at a time, and then two minutes, three, etc.
You can make sure your puppy is tired from exercise before you leave the house to minimize the energy it takes for it to destroy while you're gone.
Your veterinarian may prescribe drug therapy that relieves the anxiety, such as Clomacalm (clomipramine hydrochloride) or Reconcile (Prozac or fluoxetine), but drugs alone don't always cure the anxiety.
Prognosis for Puppies With Separation Anxiety
Following a diagnosis by your vet, your puppy will likely respond well to a combination of desensitizing techniques and medication to treat separation anxiety.
How to Prevent Separation Anxiety
You can do many things to help prevent your puppy from developing separation anxiety. It is important to aim for stability in your puppy’s routine and the duration and frequency with which you leave your puppy alone, as instability can prompt anxiety. In maintaining this routine, you should avoid leaving your puppy alone for too long, but also avoid long uninterrupted periods without leaving your puppy. If possible, striking a balance between the two helps prevent separation anxiety.
Additionally, exposing your puppy to extensive socialization outside of the home in the first five to 10 months of age will reduce the chance of developing separation anxiety.
Is separation anxiety in puppies normal?
While not uncommon, separation anxiety in puppies is not normal. There is a difference between your puppy exhibiting behaviors typical of an untrained dog and symptoms of a severe anxiety disorder. It's sometimes difficult to distinguish the two, but your vet will make a proper diagnosis.
How can I tell how my puppy is behaving when I'm not home?
Your vet may ask you to set up a video camera to record your puppy's behavior while you're away to show at an appointment. The video (and audio) will provide insight into behaviors like the duration of vocalizations or if your puppy is pacing or shaking.
Why is my puppy destroying my favorite items?
Because your puppy's separation anxiety might be triggered by your scent, the items that smell the most like you can be the most triggering. Your puppy is not trying to punish you for leaving but is instead reacting to the anxiety of your being gone.
Sargisson, R. Canine Separation Anxiety: Strategies for Treatment and Management. Veterinary Medicine (Auckl), vol 2014, no. 5, 2014, pp. 143-151., 2014 School of Psychology, University of Waikato, Tauranga, New Zealand. doi:10.2147/VMRR.S60424
Separation Anxiety in Dogs and Puppies: Symptoms, Causes, Prevention, and Treatment. American Kennel Club