Behavior - Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Separation anxiety is a behavior problem commonly seen in puppies and adults from shelters or rescue groups, and can also show up in adult dogs that suddenly have to deal with schedule changes such that they are spending time alone when in the past there may have been someone home.  What are the typical symptoms of separation anxiety? There are four common ones.  Not ALL need to occur for a diagnosis of separation anxiety but the key is that the signs are occurring when the dog is alone or thinks she is alone.

  • Destructive behavior is commonly directed towards exits from the home, such as windows or doorways. This may also mean attempts to escape from confined areas such as crates or rooms. You may also see destruction directed towards personal items such as remote control units, pillows, clothing, etc. 
  • Vocalization typically presents as a monotonous sound (a single tone in which the bark does not change much in pitch), persistent howling, or barking. 
  • Elimination: you can see stool and/or urine accidents when your dog is left alone or thinks she is alone. The material is often in multiple locations because the dog is pacing due to anxiety and thus goes in the areas where she is pacing. The stool can often be abnormal and have a slimy, mucus look.
  • Hypersalivation or drooling: anxiety results in increased drooling, so you may see puddles of thick saliva in the crate or near an exit where the dog may be scratching to get out. You also may see heightened thirst when you return home as the drooling and panting may cause some dehydration.

It is important to recognize that all these signs can occur for reasons other than separation anxiety; to relate to separation anxiety, the signs must occur when your dog is alone or thinks she is alone.

Treatment

With most behavior problems, treatment involves altering multiple factors including the dog’s environment, how the people interact with the dog, and, at times, the use of anti-anxiety medications. Separation anxiety is no different.

Behavior Modification

Common steps are used to manage separation anxiety. They involve increasing your dog’s level of independence, reducing the excitement associated with your departure, and adapting your dog’s ability to be alone.

  • Do not reward anxiety-induced demands for attention. Dogs often will demand attention when anxious as a means of achieving a level of comfort. Granting attention in these situations can result in your dog reinforcing this behavior and acting as a crutch your dog will come to rely on. So, it is important to ignore any demands for attention that your dog INITIATES. That does not mean never paying attention to your dog. Consistent, structured, positive attention that you initiate is acceptable. Regularly scheduled bouts of play, leash walks and training can be helpful.
  • Keep your coming and going very low-key and a non-event. That means performing ALL activities with your dog before a 30-minute period prior to departure from your home. Walks, feeding, and going out to eliminate should not occur in that last 30 minutes. You are preparing your dog for the time when you will be gone rather than getting her all worked up and then left holding the bag after you leave.  Don’t leave your home in a hurry or in a panic. Your dog will pick up on this and be nervous at your departure.
  • Consider leaving a treat that takes some time to consume just before you leave. Items such as food-stuffed hard toys, such as a Kong, can be helpful. Be aware, however, that anxious dogs frequently do not eat when alone until the anxiety begins to become more managed. At that point, these items can begin to be more helpful.
  • When you come home, ignore your dog until she is relaxed. This includes not taking your dog out to eliminate right away. You may have a few accidents at first but the long -term improvement in separation anxiety is a worthwhile trade-off.
  • Work on teaching your dog to be alone by providing areas (such as dog beds) in each room for your dog to lie down while you move from room to room. Practice having your dog lie in these spots while you leave the room for gradually longer and longer periods of time.  Some people advocate leaving your home for increasingly longer periods while your dog stays behind. This can be extremely tedious and may not be effective. I would suggest leaving this technique for situations where you are not having sufficient success with the other methods.
  • Look at activities that you typically do as you prepare to leave home (picking up keys, putting on your coat, making coffee, etc.). If any of these activities seem to be increasing the level of anxiety in your dog, consider performing them at times when you are not leaving. For example, pick up your keys and then go sit down until your dog relaxes again. The goal is for these activities to no longer be good predictors for your dog of your departure.
  • Dog appeasing pheromone (DAP) – A synthetic pheromone (chemical secreted by animals to allow communication between individuals of the same species) that can result in some degree of calming animals in various situations including when alone and experiencing separation anxiety.
  • You have the options of keeping your dog in the crate (which may or may not make the anxiety worse) and you may find a significant improvement if your dog is let out of the crate. The danger here is that you may see significant damage to your home, so if you choose to leave your dog out of the crate, be sure to only allow a short period of departure so that you can intervene early if destruction occurs. Sometimes merely moving the crate to another location (possibly in your bedroom) may be helpful.  

Anti-Anxiety Medication

The use of medication in treating separation anxiety is meant to facilitate the behavior modification program described above. Not all cases of separation anxiety require the use of medication but many do. It is critical to understand that the medication and behavior program go hand-in-hand, and the medication is not used in place of the behavior modification plan.

There are two approved medications for treating separation anxiety in dogs. This does not mean that other medications cannot be used but that these two following medications have gone through the process of approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and therefore should be the first medications used in treating this condition.

1. Clomicalm (generic name: Clomipramine) – This was the originally approved medication for treating separation anxiety and is still a valid choice. Its main advantage is a slightly more rapid onset of effect (2-4 weeks) although it can take up to 8 weeks to see the full benefit of the medication.

Side Effects:  Sedation, decreased appetite, diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, difficulty urinating in pets with urinary tract problems, increased potential for seizures in pets already experiencing seizures, small potential for heart problems in dogs with abnormal heart rhythms, liver abnormalities, increased anxiety and increased aggression.
These effects do not occur often, and sedation, decreased appetite, vomiting and diarrhea are the most common. Your veterinarian should consider blood testing before beginning treatment, approximately 3 to 4 weeks after beginning treatment and about every 6 months while on the medication. The length of time on the medication can vary from a few weeks to a lifetime depending on the individual animal.

2. Reconcile (generic name: Fluoxetine) – The effects and side effects or this medication are similar to what is described for Clomicalm. Onset of action may be delayed as compared to Clomicalm in that effect may take 3 to 5 weeks but may still require a full 8 weeks to assess response to treatment.

There are other medications that may be used to manage this condition in place of or in addition to these medications if these two are ineffective.

References:

  1. Morgan,Rhea V. (2010) Small Animal Practice Client Handouts, Saunders, 2010. Print

http://www.vin.com/,  Client education resources.