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I can’t live without you! Dealing with separation anxiety in pets

In this newsletter, we’ll be discussing separation anxiety in pets, which unfortunately is one of the main reasons pet owners surrender their dogs to humane societies. Separation anxiety can present in many ways such as constantly and excessively barking, exhibiting destructive behavior, or extreme possession over a family member, toy, food etc. Learning what causes and how to manage these behaviours is the first step in combating separation anxiety.

What is Separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a diagnosis for dogs who appear and show signs of anxious or problematic behaviors, such as constant barking, urinating in the house, or destructive chewing when they are left alone or separated from the person to whom they are most attached. It can be triggered by sudden changes in schedule that result in family members being away from home more than the dog has become used to.

Common situations that can cause a dog to develop separation anxiety include someone returning to work after a long period at home, (e.g returning from maternity leave or extended unemployment, or children returning to school at the end of the summer) or a change in when they’re left alone such as an owner switching from day shifts to night shifts. Going into the fall months children will be back at school as well as many people returning to work once the COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions are lifted leaving dogs everywhere at higher risk of developing separation anxiety.

Often times, the dogs who are most at risk of this condition are between the ages of 1-2 years old which is where the development of social maturity occurs. Some studies have even shown that dogs can have susceptibility genes to develop anxiety. Unfortunately, this condition is often lifelong and many dogs will also have co-morbidities such as storm/noise phobias, inflammatory bowel disease and fear aggression. Other symptoms include excessive salivation, trembling, self-mutilation (eg licking self until raw, breaking teeth or nails trying to escape) and withdrawal. In severe cases dogs may also ingest non-food materials such as plastic off of crates, wood from doors or blankets. This increases the danger to the dog and the potential need for surgery.

How to minimize the risk

The first strategy is making an effort to keep to a regular schedule as much as possible. For example, regular and consistent feeding times help keep your pet on the same schedule and less anxious. Your pets know when it's getting close to dinner time, so try to line up your return to work schedule with their feeding times. If you know ahead of time that you will be working a shift later than when you would normally feed them dinner, gradually increase the time in-between their morning breakfast and their evening dinner while you are home. Start small with 30 minutes to 1-hour increments as this will help your pets adapt to their new routine easier and you can monitor them before going back to work. The same strategy can be used for walk/play times, bedtimes and potty breaks. Dogs are creatures of habit and routine just like humans so the more their schedule can be reliable the more comfortable they are.

Puzzle treats and other toys are great to give your pets while away. It keeps them mentally stimulated as well as it has been proven to reduce some of the pent-up energy and thus reducing the risk of your pets taking it out on household objects like chairs, blankets, and furniture. There are a wide variety of puzzle feeders available such as “licky” matts, kongs and maze bowls. Kongs can even be frozen with peanut butter or canned food in them to make the treat last longer. DIY options include egg cartons with kibble in them or an ice-cube tray smeared with canned food.

Another strategy we recommend are pheromone based diffusers such as Adaptil . This veterinarian-backed product releases a calming pheromone similar to the pheromones their mothers produce when nursing them as puppies. Adaptil is available in diffusers, sprays, and collars depending on the specific need. For more information on the product please click on the link written by Dr. Tynes for Pet MD.

When returning home, owners are also encouraged to greet their pet calmly and not engage unless the pet is relatively come (ie not crying, salivating or throwing themselves into the person). This helps the pet to understand that calm behaviour is rewarded with pats and greeting while frantic behaviour is not.

What if it's not just barking and my Dog is destroying my house?

In severe cases where pets are destroying the owner's property such as beds, couches, baseboards, doors, etc, one of the safest approaches to correcting this behavior is by crate training. Although it can and will be challenging at times, it is even more effective if the crate training has been done prior to the development of separation anxiety. This doesn’t mean the pet will always have to be left in a crate but it allows the pet to have a safe/quiet spot and to decrease the risk of injury through foreign body ingestion. Crate training should first be done while the owner is home and owners should keep in mind to only approach the crate when they are quiet. When the dog has realized the crate isn’t the end of the world owners can begin to leave the house for 15-30 minutes at a time. Wait until you do not hear your pet barking, re-enter your home but do not make it exciting until after releasing your pet from the crate. Also, incorporate puzzle treats and toys while in their crate to help reduce barking/poor behaviors. Only reward your pet when they are displaying good behaviors exiting the crate, do not let them barge through the crate door when you go to open it. Giving in and opening the crate while they are barking/excited behavior will only enable the problem further and it's extremely hard to break this habit once it sets in.

Finally, in many cases medications can be useful to increase the success of training and lower the risks of injury. Calming medications can help ensure the pet is in a quiet enough state of mind for learning to occur as these neuropathways can be greatly inhibited in heightened states. Use of medications should be closely monitored by your veterinarian to ensure the best fit for your pet is found.

Take Home Message

Separation anxiety in dogs is both a common and difficult issue to deal with. It can present in a variety of ways and can range from mild to severe. Recognizing the risk factors and early signs can help make this condition more manageable and there are many strategies and medical therapies that can be used. If you feel your dog may be struggling with separation anxiety, please don’t hesitate to reach out and talk to your veterinarian today!

Written by Dr. Emily Zakrajsek

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