Information Possibly Outdated
The information presented on this page was originally released on April 17, 2000. It may not be outdated, but please search our site for more current information. If you plan to quote or reference this information in a publication, please check with the Extension specialist or author before proceeding.
Remember Dogs When There Is A Separation
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- When a family member dies or a couple divorces, the dog may be the last thing on anyone's mind, but the event can be life-shattering to this member of the family.
Dr. John Harkness, animal behaviorist at Mississippi State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, said separation anxiety can be a big problem with dogs as they bond so closely with humans.
"While separation anxiety varies among dogs, it doesn't seem to have a breed or sex disposition. However, 22 percent of guide dogs experience this anxiety," Harkness said. "There may be genetic and environmental triggers, but the underlying reason why some dogs react very strongly to a loss and others not at all is not known."
Many dogs become such a part of the family that they experience genuine loss when the family structure changes. These get very upset when a family member dies, a couple separates, someone who had been home most of the time gets a job outside the home or a child moves away.
"Separation anxiety usually follows a situation in which the dog's closest human companions, after a long period of being together and bonding, leave the home and leave the animal alone," Harkness said. "This causes quite intense stress within some dogs."
Harkness compared the emotional trauma of a dog losing a person it was attached to with a spouse dying. Some dogs go to pieces and cannot get through the stressful situation alone, but most can be helped with the proper drugs.
Harkness said cats are more loners and develop less strong attachments. They rarely show a sense of loss when the family changes.
Obvious signs of stress in dogs include different degrees of destructive behavior, barking or howling more than normal, and house soiling, especially where the scent of the missing person can be found or at exits from the house. Less obvious signs include depression and loss of appetite or pacing, crying, chewing at themselves and looking for the person.
"The dog's reaction can range from simple nervousness to intolerable destructiveness in the home," Harkness said. "This reaction to loss may be delayed as time must pass before they realize the person is truly gone. Owners should know that when dogs misbehave, they are not getting back at people but are reacting to their loss. Don't punish the dog for this behavior."
While some dogs experience separation anxiety when left alone, this situation when anxiety is highest is temporary and the dog usually calms after about 30 to 60 minutes. Harkness said treatments to resolve these problems involve behavior modification and medication. The outlook is good if the problem is detected in its early stages.
Different forms of behavior modification reward good behavior, slowly acclimate the dog to the situation that causes anxiety or divert their attention by linking the negative situation to something pleasurable, such as a treat, companionship, or the television or radio. Exercise these dogs more to release energy. Harkness said medications can be extremely helpful in such cases.
"Modern medicine offers several drugs that take the edge off dogs' anxiety and quiet them," Harkness said. "Under the influence of drugs, dogs get used to their new circumstances, the memories fade and they can move on."
Louise Davis, child and family development specialist with MSU's Extension Service, suggested steps people can take to lessen the effects of family change on a pet. This is especially important in situations such as a divorce when both people want to keep the pet.
"Cooperate and reach a consensus on what is best for the animal," Davis said. "Respect one another's right to share in the responsibility of the animal and make decisions together that acknowledge and respect the significance of the pet in each other's lives."
Davis also emphasized the importance of being flexible and willing to compromise for the good of the pet. Keep a sense of humor and hold realistic expectations about the other person and the arrangements for the pet.
Contact: Dr. John Harkness, (662) 325-3432