When Separation Anxiety is Not About Separation At All

ASK THE VET: Dr. Boyle Brown, DVM from Port City Referral Hospital in Portsmouth, NH sits down and talks separation anxiety in pets.

By: Tonya Boyle Brown, DVM, DACVIM

As busy families, we are acutely aware that the priorities of our four legged family members take a back seat to the needs of our two-legged family members. There can be an accompanying guilt associated with our busy schedules and lack of attention directly bestowed upon our pets. This guilt may be compounded when we come home to a mess, chaos or an excitable, easily overstimulated pet. Often we blame ourselves. We think they would be less anxious and more even tempered if we spent more time exercising and interacting with them.

There is some truth to this, but dogs, and cats (yes, cats can suffer from separation anxiety too, as my brother’s cat, Baily has taught me), live in the present. They learn routines and social cues allowing them to know when it’s roughly time for the family to come home, time for a walk, or time to be fed. Yet, in between those times, they wait. So where does separation anxiety come from?

For many dogs and cats, the anxiety is in the waiting. It is not as much about the time we are gone, as it is about the reentry. It’s about the expectation of the greeting they will receive when the family returns.

Imagine being in a quiet house all day with minimal distractions. Now imagine your favorite humans, disrupt that silence in a sudden and frantic (we call it “happy”) emotional state. We are excited to be home and overjoyed to see this fluffy source of unconditional love. We begin an energetic, high pitched, greeting that goes something like this (with variations): “hellllloooo, mommy’s little girl!!! Who is the bestest smoochie, poochie woochie in the whole world? Who is? You are! Yes you are!!”

The emotional greeting: We all do it, we can’t help it, and that’s okay; but this onslaught of emotions can be very hard on a dog (or a cat). It can be hard for some animals to categorize the emotion associated with this sudden burst of energy and their joy at the return of their beloved human(s).

This can turn the greeting into something they anticipate about all day long. Some animals associate the return with the burst of energy, so in order to hasten the return, they begin the burst of energy for you, and your furnishings may pay the price for this absence. But, that’s just collateral damage, and well worth it (to your dog) if it means you’ll be home sooner rather than later.

So,  how do we help our four-legged family members avoid or cope with separation anxiety? Avoid these strong fluctuations in energy. 

  1. Start a new homecoming routine: 
  2. Enter the house calmly. 
  3. Avoid eye contact and initially, even physical contact.
  4. Allow everyone to adjust to a busy house again with the least amount of fuss possible. 
  5. Set your stuff down
  6. Take your pet outside to relieve themselves. 
  7. After five minutes, let yourself get silly after the normal bustle of the house has been re-established. 

Don’t get me wrong, this is not easy! It goes against every instinct we have when we come home to our pets, but if you reverse your psyche and make leaving your pet an emotional, excited, treat-laden time and make greeting your pet boring and no big deal, you will have a happier, better adjusted family member.


Tonya Boyle Brown, DVM, DACVIM

separation anxiety in dogs puppies
Dr. Tonya Brown

Dr. Tonya Boyle Brown, a graduate of Colby College, grew up in the southern Maine and Seacoast area.  She was awarded her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from the University Of Wisconsin School Of Veterinary Medicine in 2002.  She completed a small animal internship in medicine and surgery at The Animal Medical Center in New York City. After spending some time in private practice in Maine, Dr. Boyle Brown returned to academia and completed a 3 year residency in small animal Internal Medicine at North Carolina State University. Dr. Boyle Brown was accepted as a Diplomate into the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine in 2010.

Dr. Boyle Brown enjoys challenging medical cases in both dogs and cats. She handles multiple concurrent disease processes within the same patient.  Dr. Boyle Brown has a special interest and extensive experience in endocrinology and feline medicine, including hyperthyroidism.  Her specific areas of expertise include gastrointestinal medicine, respiratory medicine, immune-mediated disease, infectious disease, urology, nephrology, hepatology, and pediatrics.  Her skills include all forms of endoscopy and abdominal ultrasound.  Dr. Boyle Brown joined the IVG network of hospitals in August 2008.

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