Separation anxiety can be a frustrating issue for owners to deal with. It is a condition that is more likely to occur in animals that have never been left alone, have been abandoned, or have had multiple homes. Signs of separation anxiety can range from urine/stool accidents in the house to dangerous, destructive behavior when the pet is left alone. Other signs may include excessive greeting behaviors when the owner returns and anxiety/depression during departure preparations (putting on a coat, grabbing the keys, etc.). It is also important to note that dogs suffering from separation anxiety often have other behavioral disorders, such as storm phobias.
When treating separation anxiety, it is important to treat each dog as an individual with his/her own specific anxiety disorder. Not all behavioral modification regimes will work for every dog. However, there are many different techniques that can be used, as well as nutraceuticals, which may aid in the process. Some nutraceuticals available for anxiety disorders include the Adaptil collar, Composure chews, or Thundershirts.
The Adaptil collar can be worn all the time and constantly releases dog appeasing pheromone (D.A.P) which encourages dogs to feel calm during stressful situations. The same effect can be achieved by using other D.A.P products, such as diffusers and sprays. Composure chews are a supplement containing B vitamins, L-theanine, and colostrum calming complex which support relaxation and can be given as a daily treat. Lastly, Thundershirts were designed to apply constant, gentle pressure during stressful situations. The constant pressure produces a calming effect. The above products are all natural, non-medicated products which can be purchased at most commercial pet stores and can be used alone or in combination, in addition to appropriate training.
As a last resort, prescription medications may be used in severe cases where behavioral modification and nutraceuticals alone are ineffective. Medications may be used temporarily (just used during the training period) or long-term, depending on the dog’s response to behavioral modification. A combination of behavioral modification and medications often yield the best results. Working with a veterinary behaviorist or experienced trainer can also be beneficial.
A first step in dealing with separation anxiety can be to desensitize the dog from the owner’s departures. This can be achieved by practicing gradual departures. This teaches the dog that his/her owner will return after leaving, allowing him/her to feel safe when left alone. Gradual departures involve breaking down the owner’s departure habits (putting on coat, grabbing keys, etc.) into steps and practicing each step until the dog is calm and shows no anxiety during that step. For example, a first step may involve standing up and putting on a coat. If the dog gets up, starts whining or acting anxiously keep the coat on and remain still until the dog calms down and stops paying attention to the owner. Once the owner is able to stand up and put on a coat without the dog becoming anxious, it is time to add another step (put on coat and grab keys). Continuing to practice gradual departures will allow the dog to learn that the owner’s leaving is no longer something to become anxious about.
If you think your pet suffers from separation anxiety, please come see one of the veterinarians at VCMC to discuss treatment options specific for you and your pet!