Last week Dr Robin Westwood, Texas A&M University Class of ’98 and associate veterinarian at Country Friends Veterinary Clinic, touched on anxiety and noise phobias in dogs. She purposely held off on going into much detail with Separation Anxiety as this is a beast unto itself and she felt it would be better served to present it all by its lonesome.
At Country Friends Veterinary Clinic it is not unusual for us to come across an animal and their pet parents that unfortunately are affected by this particular behavioral problem. It is one of the most common specific anxieties in dogs and can be a nightmare for human and canines alike.
Imagine……You are getting ready to leave for work and your Rottweiler, Zelda, is right on your heels. You get dressed…..get your cup of Jo…..wolf down a pop tart (for the healthy people a cup of low-fat yogurt with fruit and granola)…put your shoes on (Zelda is starting to whine a little and is pacing)…..you grab your wallet/purse….you are searching for your keys (Zelda is now whining and jumping on you, she’s panting and starting to drool- that’s gross and messy, Zelda!)….you are getting frustrated because you are in a hurry and Zelda is not helping. She is actually making it more difficult. You have your keys and are walking to the door to leave. Zelda is howling and barking. You have a hard time getting out the door. Once you do, you hear Zelda continuing to bark and she is clawing at the door and pacing from the door to the window. You get in your car, but it is bothering you that Zelda is so upset and you know that when you get home there will be a big mess to clean up. You are hoping there will not be urine on the couch this time. Bad girl Zelda!
Not a very pleasant scenario but it happens. All the symptoms that Zelda exhibited can be attributed to separation anxiety. A list of common symptoms are:
-Pet clings to owner
-barking / yelping
-destroying objects, especially doors and windows
-urinating and defecating inappropriately in the house
-vomiting / diarrhea
-twitching, pacing, panting
Separation Anxiety may be precipitated by moving to a new home, loss of another pet, loss of a family member and/or prolonged separation from owners. Rescue animals that have been bounced from home to home and not had a stable home life may be more susceptible as this instability can cause a lack of confidence.
It is important to differentiate any destructive behavior from boredom. Some animals get bored and are destructive when you are gone, like a teenager. These animals do not tend to get anxious or vocalize when you leave. They are just looking for something to do.
What can you do????
I wish I had a simple fix. I would likely be rich if I did. It comes down to training and lots of dedication and time on your part. Occasionally medication may be needed to help but it is not the mainstay of treatment. With the right and constant training, animals and their families that suffer from this anxiety can improve their lives greatly more times than not.
First and foremost, if you are suspecting separation anxiety in your pet schedule an appointment and meet with me, Dr. Rhonda, Dr. McMahon, or Dr Wilson so that we can definitively diagnose separation anxiety and rule in or out any illness or medical problem that could have precipitated it.
Secondly, remember this is an anxiety disorder and negative reinforcement (yelling, startling them with noise or any other punishment) will likely make your pet more anxious and thus symptoms may become worse. Positive reinforcement works best. Reward the behavior you want, relaxation, with treats and affection and ignore the behavior you do not want, anxiety. I know that is sometimes very difficult to do!
The next most important thing, do not make a big deal when you leave or come home. The family should ignore the animal for 20 minutes before and 20 minutes after you leave. Do not make a big production by hugging and cooing as this a lot of time makes it worse. If you make a big deal, your pet senses your departure/ arrival as a big deal and they react appropriately.
Make sure that your pet is exercised vigorously at least twice a day and teach him/her as many commands as possible, sit, stay, lay down, etc. Involvement with an obedience class will help greatly. This helps teach anxious dogs to relax and gives them confidence.
Help desensitize your pet to your routine before you leave the house. Dogs know what you are doing long before you do it and the anticipation that you are going to leave gets them ramped up and more anxious. Figure out your routine, i.e. putting on your shoes, picking up your purse, getting your keys. If you can determine the subtle clues you give your pet, you can desensitize them to these clues by repeating them frequently but not leaving and rewarding them when they relax.
Crate training will help some dogs because they are more comfortable in a confined space but do not crate a dog that attempts to claw its way out of the crate. An injury will occur.
Medication may be necessary in some cases but it will not magically make all symptoms resolve. Currently, the two medications that are labeled for use in dogs are Clomipramine (Clomicalm, Anafranil) and Fluoxetine (Reconcile, Prozac). These medications often need to be used for long periods of time before they become effective (2-8 weeks). In some animals, they can make a big difference and make it easier to institute your training regimen.
Dr. Robin Westwood has treated many pets with anxiety issues since ’98 and has helped countless owners cope with the challenges of having a pet that exhibits anxiety symptoms. If you have any questions or comments please let us know. We love your feedback! If you have a pet exhibiting signs of separation anxiety call us and schedule an appointment.