Article By Dr. Stan Kunin In Collaboration With Diana Kunin
Separation Anxiety in dogs is one of the most difficult and frustrating conditions to deal with, both for the owner and for the veterinarian. Simply put, this disorder is described as the abnormal or stressful behavior a dog exhibits when it is separated from its owner. Dogs are pack animals. This is the natural and comfortable life for a dog. However, this lifestyle is not always understood by dog owners. Nor is the realization that the owner is looked upon by the dog as the master or head of a pack. Instinctively, dogs require a close association with other dogs or humans. When the dog is left alone for long periods of time, the dog may show signs of separation anxiety. No one knows for sure why some dogs have this problem and others don’t. Nevertheless, it does occur and needs to be attended to.
Many of these separation anxiety cases will emerge when the dog is very young. Sometimes it is because the animal is taken away from its mother too early (prior to 9 weeks of age) and placed in a home where the owner does not understand how important socialization is for the puppy. It is similar to when humans experience a stressful situation early in life; some people exhibit abnormal behavior or addiction and others don’t. Another situation that may cause this type of anxiety may occur when a dog is taken to the pound or to a rescue. When it is finally placed in a home, the dog may have already acquired life long insecurities, directly due to that experience.
When a puppy is in a litter, whether feral or domestic, its mother will nurture and care for it, instilling securities which help to teach it to become independent. Humans don’t always allow that natural progress. Humans can inadvertently contribute to separation anxiety by not duplicating what canine mothers do. As a general rule, canines don’t abandon their litter intentionally. When puppies are taken away from their mother and shipped off to a pet store or sold to buyers, it’s typically at too early an age. I, personally, don’t recommend taking the puppy away from its mother before 9 weeks of age. This is usually the age at which the pups start to exert their independence and are psychologically capable of being away from their mother.
Because no one knows for sure the mechanism of separation anxiety, there are no guarantees that even with behavioral modification training and drug therapy, that this problem can be corrected. Unfortunately, with some dogs, no matter what, their separation anxiety will persist. If the problem continues, many owners will give the dog up. In extreme cases some dogs are euthanized because their behavior becomes too destructive or dangerous and becomes a threat to their owners or the people around them.
A dogs anxiety is indicated by exhibiting some of following behaviors:
- Following the owner around constantly. One may think their dog just really loves them, but actually, this dog is merely showing signs of insecurity.
- Destructive chewing of furniture or clawing/digging at the door. This can cause potential medical problems. For example, if the dog swallows pieces of the destroyed item, the splintered wood or chards can cause internal injury. The dog can also potentially wear their toenails down so much it can cause the nails to bleed. Not only is this a problem for the dog, but it can create a bloody mess throughout the home.
- The dog can become self mutilating and chew excessively on parts on their body, such as their legs or tail. Self destruction can be a huge problem. It is important that a clarification of this problem be assessed and that allergic reactions be ruled out.
- Excessive barking or howling is a sign of separation anxiety. This is an unwelcome behavior that can affect the neighbors as well as the owners. A timely decision needs to be made in dealing with this issue. There are many choices, including working diligently with a dog behaviorist, resorting to a surgical debarking of the dog, or finding another home where the dog will not be separated from people for long periods of time.
- Excessive urination and defecation. This needs to be interpreted carefully. Before counting this as behavioral, it will be necessary to discover if this is actually due to behavioral issues, or if better housebreaking training is indicated, or if there are any medical conditions.
- Other causes that can trigger separation anxiety, other than the lack of socialization skills, are changes in the dogs environment. For instance, a new baby introduced into a household should be a very happy event, but it can cause quite a bit of stress to an insecure dog. If this is the type of dog who is not used to "sharing" another member of the "pack" with the "master", this may trigger bad behavior. Other changes, such as moving into a new home, a death in the family, children moving out or moving in, a breakup in a family relationship, or if some one in their "pack" has a new medical condition, all can cause stress.
As with any behavioral changes, first and foremost, an examination by a veterinarian is necessary to rule out any underlying medical conditions which could contribute to separation anxiety. Although changes such as those mentioned above can cause anxiety, bad behavior can happen at any time in a dog’s life. It is, however, especially prevalent in older dogs. As in people, elderly dogs may get disoriented or confused and require special care. Unlike people, we can’t put these elderly dogs in a "care-assisted" facility and have someone else watch them 24/7. With the older dog, the owners become the "care-taker". Because this is something many owners don’t think about, when they first get a dog, frustration and anger can be very common. The owner will want a "quick-fix" to deal with this unfortunate "natural" part of life. Veterinarians may prescribe tranquilizers and anti-anxiety drugs but they can have mixed results. Each case has to be treated differently, because each dog and each situation is different. What works for one dog, may not necessarily work for another.
For the non-elderly dogs who have the above descriptions, there are many non-drug avenues to explore. Unless you’re a dog trainer, it is best to work with an animal behaviorist who is knowledgeable about separation anxiety. There are small things an owner can try, such as leaving and returning home quietly without a fuss, playing music on the radio while away, feeding the dog before leaving, exercising regularly or having fun/play time. These can be initiated to help the anxious dogs adapt. Over the counter home remedies, such as Rescue Remedy or Calm may help. For some dogs, a product called the Thundershirt has been reported to calm a dog. This gives the dog a snug feeling (like a hug) with the shirt wrapped around the torso of the dog. This has mixed reviews. Another non-drug approach could be tried with a “natural” solution such as with a product called Adaptil (D.A.P. or dog appeasing pheromone). Adaptil is a synthetic form of the pheromone that is secreted by the mother while nursing her puppies. It can help a dog become more relaxed and stay calm during a stressful period. Adaptil comes in a spray form, a collar, and a plug-in diffuser. As with any drug, this may or may not help your dog, but there are no side effects with this approach.
Veterinarians sometimes treat dogs with the same drugs that are used in people with anxiety issues. Two classes of anti-depressants or anti-anxiety drugs are commonly used. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI) are used, with examples like Fluoxetine (Prozac for human and Reconcile for dogs). Another class of drug used for anxiety is in the tri-cyclic anti-depressant family like Clomipramine (Clomicalm in dogs). These two classes of drugs require medicating for a few weeks in order to determine whether or not the desired response has been attained. There is also Anxiolytic drugs from the Benzodiazepine family which include Valium (Diazepam) and Alprozalam (Xanax). The problem with using these drugs is that they are short acting drugs (a few hours). This may, however, be good to use for a temporary event, such as a night of fireworks or the occasional family party.
Just as it is with humans, all anxiety drugs for dogs will work best if given in conjunction with the help of a behaviorist (or for humans a therapist). If it is determined that there is a need to use any of these drugs, it is imperative to discuss the possible side effects with your veterinarian. For example, a drug like Valium could cause a dog to become hyper-excitable and or aggressive, which is the opposite effect it should have. Some of these drugs could actually remove the inhibitive behavior, and the dog could become aggressive. Again, the emphasis here is the importance of working with a qualified behaviorist.
Ultimately, with separation anxiety, the goal is to try to resolve the underlying behavioral issues, by teaching your dog to enjoy or at least tolerate, being left alone. This will truly take a village in order to help a dog with this affliction. The village includes you, your veterinarian, a behaviorist and hopefully a dog who will be responsive to any or all of the above described protocol.
About Dr. Stan Kunin
Stan Kunin DVM graduated from UC Davis in 1978 and has had his own practice in Woodland Hills, California since 1986. Dr. Kunin is a special veterinarian who was born 80% deaf, but the weakness in his hearing has helped to give him a 6th sense about animal care and the wellbeing of his patients.
In a regular series of articles for the Jason Debus Heigl Foundation, Dr. Kunin shares his thoughts, opinions and advice on animal matters.