When Your Furballs Get Too SAD

When Your Furballs Get Too SAD

Big brown eyes with russet tear stains leading to their warm and moist snout, violently sniffing you every time you enter your home. Staring at you with complete adoration, but a hint of suspicion and accusation, almost saying: “Is that another dog I smell on you? How dare you? ” And yet there is love and wild excitement to see you – a love so pure that your heart never becomes immune to it. How often do we look to our canine friends for support?

For centuries humans have found a friend, and a reason to smile, in dogs. Today, for those who do not have dogs, sensational “puppy videos” are created and uploaded on social media and these provide relaxation to some. Their innocence, playfulness, and unconditional love are key for many individuals to deal with their anxiety disorders. These furballs distract them from their over-worked minds and soothe their nerves. However, what happens when these tail-waggers have an anxiety disorder? Dogs may stop eating or act in an unruly manner if their owner’s absence makes them nervous. Language has been a communicative barrier. We do not know what they are feeling; a wag of a tail, a lick, a bark, can all be interpreted differently by us humans. How can we tell if a dog’s anxiety is a persistent issue that may need treatment?

Twenty percent of the nation’s 80 million dogs have separation anxiety disorder or SAD, according to Dr. Nick Dodman of Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, and around 29 to 50 percent of senior dogs are affected (Borreli 2014). Dr. Dodman explains that dogs usually develop this disorder at a young age, and older dogs may develop an anxiety disorder as a response to their dependency on their owners when they are ill. They are not only loyal to their owners, but also very emotionally attached. Therefore, they may get anxious when separated from their owner. While we may not be able to understand dogs as clearly as another human who is able to communicate their anxiety to us verbally, there are defining symptoms in their behavior that can be observed if they suffer from separation anxiety, just like there would be in a human’s behavior. “Signs of separation anxiety are caused by a dog’s need to reduce tension or stress and only occur in the owner’s absence,” describes Dodman. “The most common complaints by pet parents is that their dogs are disruptive or destructive when left alone. They might urinate or defecate; bark and howl; or chew on objects, door frames or window sills,” he pointed out.  

Dianne Larson of California described her experience with her young black Labrador, Ruby, when her 14-year old son, Tanner, goes to school: “School started two weeks ago and Ruby still searches for Tanner when he’s gone. She stays in his room. If his door is closed, she will whine to get in. If she isn’t in Tanner’s room, she’s at the front window watching for him” (Borreli 2014). Experts say that dogs who suffer from this anxiety disorder may whimper frequently and refuse to eat when their owners absent. Dr. Dodman further explained, “There will be an exuberant greeting when you do come home, one that can last several minutes and be completely crazy, then the dog will run to the food bowl.”

There are several activities that pet-owners can engage their dogs in themselves to alleviate their anxiety. Some recommendations by Dr. Dodman are: walking your dog before you leave the house, leaving home with puzzles and toys for your dog to play with and keeping departures and arrivals “low-key.” If the severity of your dog’s anxiety persists, Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University recommends a formalized independence training that aims to stop reinforcement of attention-seeking behavior, ensure the dog has plenty of mental and physical exercise because a “tired dog is a happier, more relaxed dog,” and several other techniques.

Dogs provide comfort and joy to countless individuals. The least we can do for them is to interpret their behavior correctly and identify their stress. We mustn’t take their unconditional love for granted and ensure their optimum mental health.


Borreli, L. (2014, August 29). Puppy Love: Dogs Suffer Back-To-School Blues With Separation Anxiety From Kids, But Can It Be Treated? Medical Daily. Retrieved November 16, 2017, from http://www.medicaldaily.com/puppy-love-dogs-suffer-back-school-blues-separation-anxiety-kids-can-it-be-treated-300532

“I’ll Be Right Home”. (2017, June 30). Tufts University. Retrieved November 16, 2017, from http://news.vet.tufts.edu/2014/07/ill-be-right-home/

Nikita Kohli

I come from a family of doctors. Growing up surrounded by doctors, of all the things I heard at the dinner table the one thing that repeatedly peaked my interest was mental health. This encouraged me to shadow a psychiatrist and observe patients with schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. As a health science major, I want to work towards removing the stigma and misconceptions associated with mental illnesses, thus preventing people with mental illnesses to feel alienated from society. I still remember when the psychiatrist taught me to say “people with schizophrenia” rather than “schizophrenic people”.

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