Just like children saying goodbye to mum in the early days of their school life, pets can also suffer from anxiety at being separated from their owners.

Just ask Yokine man Peter Fraussen, who enlisted the help of dog behaviour consultant Kathy Kopellis MacLeod to help work with his golden retriever, Saffie. Mr Fraussen said his family sought help after six-year-old Saffie, whom he had had since she was 12 weeks old, increasingly became unmanageable when confronted by stress.

“She’s always been a bit funny when stressed but lately things have become worse — she has been very destructive in the garden and tries to break into the house when we’re out, ” he said.

Ms Kopellis MacLeod said separation anxiety referred to the distress dogs felt in the absence of a person — or animal — with whom they had a strong attachment. She said it could be expressed in distressed vocalisation, destructive behaviour, excessive salivation, pacing, panting, trembling, hyperventilating and depression.

“In its severe form it can consist of panic attacks, attempts to escape, urinating, defecating, frantically scratching and chewing at door frames and self-mutilation, ” she said.

“There are mild to moderate forms of separation anxiety which can generally be treated with behaviour modification techniques and there are severe cases, often requiring the support of anti-anxiety medication.”

Animal behaviourist Garth Jennens said separation anxiety was common in dogs of every age, breed and temperament.

“A dog can become anxious when it is home on its own or just with another dog, is separated from its owner by a barrier such as a closed door or when it does not have — or has to share — its owner’s attention, ” Dr Jennens said.

He said to treat anxiety, dogs must learn to become independent of their owner and other family members and dogs in the household. The first step was to give the dog repeated separations from an early age to desensitise them to the leaving routine.

“Dogs learn by association and become anxious when they see or hear cues associated with their owner leaving, ” Dr Jennens said.

“By picking up keys, putting the roller door up and down, clicking locks on external doors and going out to the car regularly when they are home, owners can desensitise their dog.”

Dr Jennens said separation anxiety was also common in cats, which tended to form a stronger attachment to their owners than to other cats.

“In cats we often get urine spraying, self-grooming and vocalisation, especially in the presence of their owners, ” he said.

With birds, anxiety could manifest itself in vocalisation, aggression to other family members and self-mutilation.

“Separation anxiety can be successfully treated by an animal behaviourist with the appropriate exercises if a program is implemented early and carried out over a period of time in order for the animal to gradually decrease its dependency on people or another animal, ” he said.

For more information phone Dr Jennens on 1300 887 158 or Ms Kopellis MacLeod on 9345 5277.


© The West Australian