Separation Anxiety: Love is a Battlefield

By Kim Everson, DVM

A few weeks ago my friend adopted a fluffy little 3-year-old mutt named Mack.* Apparently, Mack’s previous owners were at the end of their rope with the dog’s pooping and peeing in the house, and he was destined for the shelter or far worse. Friendly, cute and active, it’s easy to see how Mack wiggled his way into a new home even with his bad toilet habits. After all, with a little hard work maybe Mack could be properly potty trained.


In very short order, my friend discovered the stories about Mack were true. As soon as the family left the house, Mack would deposit little gifts on the rug. As the family vet, my job was to determine if Mack had a medical or behavioral problem. How I wish we’d found a simple explanation on his physical exam, blood, fecal and urine tests! All systems checked out, leaving us with a behavioral issue. And unfortunately there is no magic pill to cure that ill. What we needed to do next was learn as much as possible about the triggers for the bad behavior so we can figure out ways to reprogram Mack’s response.

Observation revealed Mack has separation anxiety. In a very short time Mack has become intensely attached to my friend’s young daughter. So much so that if he can’t physically be near her he freaks out. When the family came over for dinner the other night, Mack had to come too or he would mess in their house. As the kids played in a bunk bed fort, Mack barked and scratched and cried because his favorite person was out of reach. Later, when we sat down to eat, the dog had to be under the table at her feet. To anyone other than a veterinarian, this level of doggie devotion may be touching. To me, it is terrifying!

Separation anxiety is one of the most common behavior complaints I hear about in my canine practice. It beats out undue aggression and excessive barking, but ties with noise phobias (think fireworks and thunderstorms) in summer months. Separation anxiety runs the gamut from barking or pooping on the rug to full-out tooth-and-claw demolition of personal property. This last is obviously difficult to endure. Dogs often injure themselves in their desperation to join their beloved, and they can cause a lot of monetary damage as well. It is not uncommon for these dogs to be relinquished to shelters or even euthanized!

An example of separation anxiety destructiveness

It is June, and Mack cannot stand to be even a few feet away from his girl. Imagine what will happen on her first day of school in September! Like most behavior problems, separation anxiety tends to get worse over time. And we humans often inadvertently make it worse the harder we try to fix it. Instead of caving into Mack’s needs, letting him tag along on dinner dates and generally rearranging the family’s life to ensure he has the constant companionship he craves, we must act now to curb the clinginess….it’s time for a restraining order.

OK, OK! A restraining order may be a bit much. In fact, cold turkey changes can be disastrous in behavior modification programs. Instead of a restraining order, what Mack really needs is an intervention: loving family members, veterinarian and maybe even a certified animal behavior consultant working together to help him make better choices and endure occasional alone time. Properly addressing Mack’s separation anxiety will require a lot of time and effort on the owner’s part. It might even require the use of “doggie Prozac” so the training can really sink in.

Mack’s youth, energy and attentiveness make him a great candidate for such a training program. If a girl’s best friend ever deserved a second chance, it’s definitely little Mack.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

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