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Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Could it be in the genes?

Updated: Jan 29, 2021

dog gazing longingly at camera

I read a very interesting article this morning. It wasn’t actually about canine separation, but about separation anxiety in children. It seems that the gene GTF21, located on human chromosome 7, can have quite the effect on personality. People who are missing part of it have a condition called Williams syndrome and are “generally extra social.” (I love that there’s a “syndrome” attached to being extra social; is there one attached to being extra perky? My husband would pay big money to be able to medicate me for that one in the mornings.) Those with extra copies of a certain part of the gene can go in the other direction, having social and other types of anxiety. According to the article, roughly 26% of kids having an extra copy of the region containing GTF21 have been diagnosed by a doctor as having separation anxiety.

In mice that were genetically engineered to have a duplicate copy or two of GTF21 squeaked out ultrasonic distress calls to their mothers nearly twice as much as those with normal amounts of GTF21. And mice who had been engineered to be missing a copy of the gene were less vocal. As the article states, “This is the first study to show that some forms of anxiety may be linked to added or subtracted genes.”

When I was writing Don’t Leave Me: Step by Step Help for Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety, I thought about the possible genetic link quite a bit. I did list genetics as a possible cause, although finding research studies on the topic was nearly impossible. Author James Serpell states that “selectively breeding increasingly affectionate, socially dependent, and infantilized dogs may concomitantly select for excessive attachment to owners and intolerance to being alone.” This makes sense. And perhaps it’s even possible that in selecting for those traits, those GTF21 areas are being duplicated. We see the results of genetic selection in the temperament of the puppies we produce, but the truth is that we don’t know enough about the actual mechanism.

Of course separation anxiety can have many causes. Some are attributable to humans, such as bringing a dog home, spending tons of time with him, then leaving to go back to a regular work schedule. But what if separation anxiety is also found to have a definite genetic link? Is there a way to selectively turn off those extra areas of GTF21 so that separation issues could be lessened? Could we eliminate the excess GTF21 from breeding lines? Or will there be some sort of medication that could help by targeting that specific gene? Or, as fellow dog trainer Hilary Lane, who was kind enough to alert me to this article, says, “What if it backfires? If these dogs have the known genetics, will some euthanize them, thinking there is no way to solve the issue?” I certainly hope that wouldn’t be the case. After all, there are genetic components to fear issues, and to aggression issues as well. But even when we encounter dogs whose blueprint includes them, we can still make progress behaviorally. At this point there is no way of determining with certainty what caused a dog’s separation issues. But just as with other possibly genetic-based problems, we can still offer help and make life for that dog and owner a lot less stressful.


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