Separation-related behavioral problems in dogs: Behavior, heart rate and cortisol parameters
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Separation anxiety is one of the most common behavioral problems in dogs and can be described as severe distress when dogs are separated from their owner. Typical symptoms are destruction of the house, excessive vocalization, self-mutilation and elimination which only occurs in the absence of the owner. Although a lot of research has been done, it is still difficult to measure separation-related behavioral problems objectively. The aim of this study is to measure behavioral and physiological parameters (heart rate and cortisol values) of dogs with and without separation related behavioral problems during a standardized procedure. We ask the question of whether there are differences in these parameters between dogs with (SRB dogs) and without separation related behavioral problems (non-SRB dogs). This study follows two previous research studies (Hoogendam, 2012; Reifler, 2013; Dolmans, 2013) using the similar methodology. Results between all studies will be compared. A total of 29 dogs (22 SRB dogs and 7 non-SRB dogs) were tested at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the Utrecht University following a standard procedure. The testing procedure consisted of three phases: the table phase, the separation phase and the reunion phase. Dog behaviors during the table phase were analyzed using an ethogram developed in the previous studies. Mean R-R interval during all phases was measured with a Polar heart rate monitor and the heart rate variability was calculated. Salivary cortisol was measured in three samples: the home sample, the table sample and the separation sample. No significant differences were found in any of the head and mouth behaviors between SRB and non-SRB dogs during the table phase. In SRB dogs, there was a significant difference in mean R-R interval between the three testing phases. SRB dogs showed a significant higher mean heart rate during the separation and reunion phase compared with non-SRB dogs. Heart rate variability (RMSSD) didn’t differ between the two groups of dogs. All dogs had a higher mean cortisol level after the table phase compared to the home sample. In SRB dogs, the cortisol level after the separation phase was significantly different from the home sample. Mean cortisol levels after the separation phase were significantly higher in SRB dogs than in non-SRB dogs. A negative correlation was found between ‘head to body owner’ and ‘head to environment’ in all dogs. ‘Head to environment’ was also significantly negative correlated with ‘head to camera’. A positive correlation was found between the frequency of ‘licking lips’ and the duration of panting in all dogs. ‘Licking lips’ was also positive correlated with yawning in all dogs. Based on these results, the behavioral, heart rate and salivary cortisol parameters measured during the table phase do not seem to be good predictors of the same parameters measured during the separation phase. The table phase may not be a helpful tool to distinguish dogs with and without SRB problems. Heart rate and cortisol parameters might be helpful in the diagnosis of separation anxiety, but further analysis with the behavioral data from the separation and reunion phases is needed. In the future, a diagnostic tool for separation anxiety could be developed to assess the severity of SRB symptoms using scientific criteria based on the differences in behavior, heart rate and cortisol parameters.