SEPARATION ANXIETY IN DOGS
From the vets at Middletown Animal Hospital
Does your dog destruct everything in its path, drool excessively, urinate or defecate inappropriately, or bark non-stop once you leave the house? If so, they may have a case of separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is characterized by inappropriate behavior during owner departure and usually occurs at the time of perceived separation or within 30 minutes of departure. It is thought to be attributed to a strong exaggerated attachment to their owners. This disorder can be precipitated by extended time periods away from their owner or a move to a new home. Prior to these events, the dog may have never had any episodes of separation anxiety.
One key to diagnosing separation anxiety is to recognize the signs. It is extremely helpful if you can video tape your dog’s behavior during those periods of anxiety, as well as keep a detailed log of their behavior to properly determine the severity, likely triggering causes, and potential therapeutic strategies. It is important to note that many cases of separation anxiety also show signs of noise or thunder/storm phobia.
Some clinical signs include: excessive vocalization, inappropriate elimination, and/or destruction during the absence of their owner. Sometimes, they will become anorexic, have gastrointestinal upset, or act “depressed”. Before the owner leaves, they may hide, look anxious, follow the owner around, prevent the owner from leaving, or refuse to enter a crate if provided. When the owner returns home, they may act like Velcro, staying attached to the owner, have excessive greeting behavior, and/or take a long time to calm down. There are other behavioral disorders or medical conditions that can present similarly. Thus, it is important for separation anxiety to be correctly diagnosed in order to properly manage and treat the disorder.
Separation anxiety itself is based on fear and there are different severities. Their mental state is disturbed. Learning is involved as well. Therefore, in treatment of the disorder, we are modifying their behavior with multiple strategies, including altering the environment, eliminating triggers through counter-conditioning, and pharmacological management if needed. Treatment is a training exercise that may require pills as an adjunct, and involves the owner just as much as the dog. In order for treatment to be successful, you as an owner need to be on board and dedicated 100%.
Step 1: Alter the environment. This involves removing objects subject to damage from the dog or removing the dog from the potential site of damage. Most often, this means crating the dog or restricting them to a small kennel. Crating and confinement is a learned behavior and can take several weeks of conditioning for them to become comfortable. It is important to gradually take this step. Place them in the crate first with the door open, then close the door for increasing periods of time, all while you are home with them at first. Environmental enrichment is also necessary. Give them toys and bones to chew on. Leave the television or radio on for distraction and entertainment. Another thing to try is using DAP (Dog-Appeasing Pheromone) diffusers. They plug into your outlets, help keep them calm, have no side effects, and are one of few products that are FDA approved for use in dogs in treatment of behavioral disorders.
Step 2: Discourage hyper attachment and reward good behavior. These dogs will solicit attention from their owners often. Resist the temptation to pet the dog with separation anxiety when approached for play or contact. Be aloof when entering the house. Instead, you should be the initiator of contact. Do not allow the dog to settle down in close proximity. If the dog normally sleeps on the bed, provide their own bed on the floor. And encourage independent play. When the dog settles down, is calm, and relaxed, reward them for their good behavior.
Step 3: Eliminate triggers and desensitize. This relies on eliminating learned cues of departure and return. Examples of departure cues are: grabbing the keys or purse, and putting on a coat. These cues should be practiced 30-50 times per day until they become meaningless activity for the dog. Also, avoid using specific phrases while leaving or coming home. The dog preferably should be ignored and occupied with a distracting toy or bone. Graduated departure exercises (“virtual” departures) will help condition the dog to eventual return. Using a “safety cue”, a signal that tells the dog the owner will return soon, such as a blanket, potpourri spray, or bell is recommended. Act as though you are leaving for work, use the safety cue, leave the dog in the place you would like the dog to be able to stay when alone, then return, remove safety cue if visible, and allow the dog to calm fully. Repeat at least 10 times. After enough practice, they should become desensitized and remain calm upon departure and arrival.
Step 4: Use medications as an adjunct if needed. There are two drugs that are FDA approved for use in dogs with separation anxiety, fluoxetine (Prozac) and clomipramine. They are pills that are used once or twice daily. Both take several weeks of being administered before you start seeing a meaningful change and it is extremely important that any medication is used WITH training. There are other medications that can also be used in cases of actual panic attacks that are short-acting, such as diazepam (Valium) and alprazolam.
Separation anxiety is a very real behavioral disorder in the dog that not only causes a disturbed and fearful mental state in the pet, but can also create an unlivable disaster for the pet owner. However, it is very treatable. In extreme cases, a behavioral specialist consultation may be warranted. In general, with proper behavioral training, adjunct prescription medications, and dedication by the owner, a successful outcome is likely.