Study Says ‘Separation Anxiety’ in Dogs May Not Be What You Think

There are many problems that a dog owner can encounter with their pet, and one of these is separation anxiety. This is the name given when dogs suffer from episodes of anxiety when their owner leaves the house and the dog is left in the house on their own. The way a dog behaves when they are suffering from separation anxiety varies from one dog to the next.

Understanding Separation Anxiety

Now, experts are saying that separation anxiety isn’t a condition in its own right, but rather a symptom of underlying frustration. According to Science Alert , new research has shown that it is an indication for things like the dog being bored, wanting to get outside, to avoiding something inside the house. The authors of the study have described how it is potentially dangerous for people to consider separation anxiety as a diagnosis. It is more important to understand the significance of the panic, frustration, and fear that come with the loss of their attachment figure. By having this understanding, there is a better chance of finding an effective treatment.

Identifying Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is easy to identify in most cases, and it is a very common problem. It is estimated that between one quarter and a half of all dogs suffer from separation-related problems to varying degrees. The main issue is determining whether the dog has separation-related problems, a separation-related disorder, or separation anxiety. There is a lack of clarity relating to the terminology used and if there are determinable differences between each of these things. This lack of clarity means that it has been a difficult subject to study, and the results of any studies that have taken place have caused confusion. In some instances, the results of different studies have even contradicted each other. One example of the conflicting information that has come from previous studies is the issue of neutering. While some studies showed that neutering was the cause of separation anxiety, while others say that dogs who have not been neutered are at greater risk of developing separation anxiety.

The Study

The most recent study into the issue of separation anxiety involved the researchers gathering data from a large-scale survey based on an online questionnaire. This was completed by the owners of over 2,700 dogs including more than 100 breeds. The questionnaire had questions designed to look at 55 cardinal indications of separation issues. These include noise sensitivity, immediate frustration, redirected frustration, elimination, exit frustration, and social panic. The researchers then grouped the dogs into clusters depending on the behaviors they displayed. Four clusters were identified, and each of these clusters had distinct psychological causes that it is possible to test.

The Four Groups of Separation Anxiety

Using the findings of the study, the researchers identified the following four clusters of dogs:

  • Cluster A- The characteristics of the dogs in this cluster are signs of exit frustration, redirected frustration, and social panic. This is the smallest cluster of the four. The researchers concluded that this group of dogs found being separated from their owner aversive and struggled to find alternative ways to cope.
  • Cluster B-This group is characterized by social panic and redirected frustration. In some rare cases, the dogs also demonstrated frustration towards their owner. The researchers concluded that this was potentially because those dogs were highly aroused. This meant that they were struggling to cope with being alone and they needed external stimuli.
  • Cluster C- The largest of the four groups was cluster C, as more than a third of the dogs in the study were categorized into this group. The characteristics of this group were barking and social panic. Like the dogs in cluster B, the cluster C dogs were aroused by external stimuli. However, the dogs in the cluster differed in the way that they expressed themselves as they did not want to get at the external stimuli. Instead, they became anxious and wanted to avoid it.
  • Cluster D- The final group defined by the researchers is cluster D. This group included all the dogs that did not fit neatly into the other clusters. This cluster is that one that remains of the most interest to the researchers, as there are still many things they want to learn from this cluster of dogs. For the purposes of the research, the experts simply labeled these dogs as the boredom group as they believe that the most likely cause of this group’s behavior was that the dogs were bored.

The Findings

Veterinarian Daniel Mills from the University of London has outlined the importance of having a better understanding of separation anxiety. According to Mills, it is necessary to look at the individual symptoms of each dog and consider the label of separation anxiety as only the start of the diagnostic process, and not the end. The findings of this study, which were published in Frontiers In Veterinary Science, allows those working with animals to look deeper into the causes of a dog’s behavior. It is hoped that this, in turn, will help them to implement better treatment programs for dogs.

This study did not look into the effectiveness of ant specific solutions. However, the hope is that this study may lead to further research that will identify the best treatment programs for the different clusters based on the cause of their separation anxiety and the behaviors they displayed. Mills hopes that people will begin to recognize that separation anxiety is simply a label rather than a condition. He likened the situation to describing your dog as having an upset tummy. This simply describes their symptom rather than the cause as there are multiple potential reasons why your dog’s tummy is upset. By realizing that the causes of separation anxiety are also diverse, Mills believes that it will lead to putting more focus on the assessment and treatment of this issue.

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