As a veterinarian, a common behavioral concern that dog owners ask me about is separation anxiety. Separation anxiety can be a particularly upsetting issue to deal with for both dogs and their owners alike. In severe cases it can even result in the dog losing its home or being relinquished to a shelter. Separation anxiety is characterized by a dog’s intense panic and associated clinical signs when the dog is prevented assess from its owner. This usually happens if the dog is left alone inside the home, but can also occur even when the owner is home if the dog is physically separated. An estimated 14% to 29% of all dogs show signs of separation anxiety. This problem is seen across all breeds, ages, and gender. However, geriatric dogs with cognitive decline and dogs adopted from a shelter are at an increased risk. Early socialization experiences as well as genetics are thought to be a factor in developing the disorder.
What are the symptoms of separation anxiety?
Dog may urinate, defecate, bark and whine, drool, chew and attempt to dig out or escape. These attempts to escape can be so severe that the dog may injure himself or cause significant destruction in the home. In contract to dogs with obedience problems, these symptoms must only be occurring when the dog is physically separated from its owner or when the dog anticipates its owner’s departure. Even the owner leaving home for just a few minutes can elicit these behaviors. The dog may also excessively greet the owner when he returns home. Puppies can exhibit some of these symptoms when left alone but the symptoms typically disappear within a few months.
How is separation anxiety treated?
Before starting treatment, a veterinarian should fully examine the dog to rule out any other medical issues that might be causing the symptoms. A full blood panel is recommended as part of the work-up. Hypothyroidism, a condition diagnosed frequently in older dogs, can exacerbate anxiety symptoms. This condition can be treated if it is identified on bloodwork.
The goal of treatment is to reduce the dog’s dependence on its owner. This is done gradually through a combination of behavioral modification exercises and in some cases, medication. Separation anxiety can be frustrating to treat, and owners must be committed to following through with consistent behavioral training exercises. Severe cases will benefit from the additional support and expertise a veterinary behaviorist can provide.
Behavioral modification exercises aim to increase the dog’s relaxed and independent behavior by rewarding it, while decreasing and ignoring attention-seeking and anxious behaviors. Independence can be fostered by teaching the dog to go to its bed and wait calmly before it receives a treat. Length of time the dog waits quietly on its bed can be gradually increased until the owner is able to leave the room briefly and come back. Any clingy or attention-seeking behavior should be completely ignored or redirected by giving the dog a command to sit or lie down and wait calmly. The dog also needs to be desensitized to typical “departure cues” so that they do not increase anxiety. Departure cues are routines the owner follows immediately prior to leaving, such as picking up the keys and purse, putting on shoes, and opening and shutting the front door. These departure cues normally signal to the dog that the owner is about to leave. However, when these steps are performed at random times throughout the day independent of the owner leaving, the dog’s anxious association with them is lessened. These examples are just a small sample of the types of behavioral exercises available to help with separation anxiety. Your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist can provide a more comprehensive and step-by-step approach.
If consistent behavioral exercises alone are not enough to help decrease the anxiety to a tolerable level, other options including supplements and medication should be explored. Adaptil diffusers release a dog-appeasing pheromone (a chemical substance or odor) that is relaxing to dogs with separation anxiety. Two oral supplements currently available that are promising in the treatment of canine anxiety are Anxitane and Zylkene. Anxitane contains L-Theanine, an amino acid naturally found in green tea leaves. Zylkene supplement contains alpha casein, a protein derived from cow’s milk. Both of these supplements have been shown to induce calming behavior and decrease anxiety in dogs. Fluoxetine, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), is a prescription medication used in the treatment of separation anxiety. This medication taken daily helps to increase the level of serotonin or “feel good” chemicals in the brain, thereby reducing the level of anxiety. Medication should always be used with a concurrent behavioral program in place. Several other medication options exist. Your veterinarian can discuss these options with you if they are indicated for your dog.
Tips for managing separation anxiety:
DO exercise your dog daily. Frequent exercise can reduce a dog’s overall anxiety level.
DO purposely downplay your arrivals and departures from home. Upon returning, wait until your dog calms down to acknowledge and pet him, rewarding his non-anxious behavior.
DO practice behavior techniques and departure cues multiple times daily.
DO NOT inadvertently reward a dog’s attention seeking behavior. Barking, whining, and pawing at the owner in an effort to gain the owner’s attention throughout the day should be ignored. Instead, calm behavior should be reinforced with positive attention or a reward.
DO NOT punish the dog for his destructive actions when left alone. It is a response to severe anxiety, and punishment will only confuse the dog and cause further distress.
Our veterinarians at Great Plains SPCA are well-versed in diagnosing and treating separation anxiety. We look forward to the opportunity to meet with you and answer your questions and help decrease your pet’s anxious behavior and live a happier (and more relaxed) life.