Acu in Practice: "Separation" Anxiety

Welcome to acu in practice! Separation anxiety seems to be a more common problem in companion pets, but is every case truly “separation” anxiety? I’ve noticed this has gradually become a bucket for all types of undesired behaviors that occur when the owner or guardian is not home. True separation anxiety is anxiety due to being alone or away from a bonded guardian or housemate. Not every pet that acts out when the owner is away is suffering from true separation anxiety. It is especially important to differentiate the cause behavior or emotional imbalance in order to create a successful treatment plan with behavior modification, environmental modification, herbal support and acupuncture.

Separation anxiety is commonly diagnosed as a Shen disturbance. However, Shen disturbance is almost always a secondary pattern manifesting due to an underlying primary pattern of imbalance. The primary pattern can be discovered using the Eight Principle approach, Five Element approach or a combination of the two. It could be an internal imbalance, an environmental imbalance, or both.  If only the Shen disturbance is addressed, then the anxiety will continue to recur.  Relate this problem to chronic pancreatitis - if you treat with an antiemetic only, and the vomiting stops, will you be surprised when the vomiting recurs once the antiemetic wears off? The same is true for Shen disturbance. If you treat only to Calm the Shen/Spirit, once the calming effects wear off, the anxiety will come back. The Shen is housed by the Heart. It makes sense to include points like HT 7 to help Calm the Shen, but you also need to identify the underlying cause for the Shen Disturbance in order to gain better, longer lasting results.  In most emotional/behavioral cases, I find it very effective to look at the patient using Five Element theory. Fire elements are most predisposed to true separation anxiety, but I have noticed that anxiety behaviors that occur when left alone or when the family is away can manifest for different reasons in different elemental constitutions. For example:

Fire - fear of being alone, away from attached person/being, lack of things to do

Earth - worry, overthinking, away from attached person/being, lack of mental stimulation

Metal - anxiety because family is incomplete, routine is not being followed to their standards, a boredom

Water - anxiety due to fearfulness when left alone, insecurity

Wood - frustration or anger because do not want owner to leave, fear of abandonment, boredom, feels they can do what they want when guardian is away.


These are not the only reasons for anxiety in these elementals, but in the case of being left alone/without owner, these are the most common reasons I find in my practice. Once I can identify the “motivation” behind the behaviors – or the “why” the patient is anxious or acting out – I can work with the guardian to form a plan that usually consists of a combination of acupuncture, herbs, environmental and behavioral modification.


This post was created by Nell Ostermeier, DVM, CVA, FAAVA and is intended for informational use, not to replace medical advice.


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