How is separation anxiety diagnosed?
This behavior only occurs when the pet anticipates being left alone or is alone. For example, when you reach for your keys to leave the house, your pet exhibits some of the following signs of distress:
– salivation, panting (in a dog)
– vocalizing loudly (may be high-pitched whining or howling)
– defecating or urinating in the house
– destroying barriers, such as doors and crates
– following the owner from room to room and constantly wanting to be held or pet
– little or no interest in food when the owner leaves
These activities may result in self-harm (bleeding paws, broken teeth or spots of fur licked entirely off), as well as damage to belongings.
How is separation anxiety treated?
We want to reward desired behavior and ignore undesirable behavior. It is important to avoid reprimanding your pet and focus on rewarding calm behavior. Punishing a dog that is in a panic will actually have the reverse effect and make them even more fearful. Here are several tools that we use to treat separation anxiety:
1) Environmental Enrichment
– Offer them a special treat only available when they are alone
o take away the item when you come home
– Pheromone mimicking mother dog’s mammary gland or territorial marking gland in cats
o promotes confidence and a sense of calm
– Radio or tv noise to provide pleasing white noise
– Anti-anxiety medications
o increase the level of serotonin (a feel-good hormone) in the brain
o take several weeks to work
– Tranquilizing medications
o for situations where the pet is in a panic
o act rapidly, but don’t last long
– Natural products – plant-based supplements
o useful only for treating mild anxiety
3) Behavior Modification
– Desensitization and counter-conditioning
o Keep greetings and departures predictable and non-emotional. Do certain activities that your pet associates with your departure repeatedly during the day without leaving – for example, jingling car keys or walking to the door.
o Try to discourage your pet from becoming too attached to one member of the household by having multiple people provide food, attention and playtime. At bedtime, it should have its own bed and not sleep on the human’s bed. If a pet is constantly trying to be held, do not let it initiate contact with you, but rather, you will give them attention once they settle.
A Sample Training Program for Your Dog:
Start by teaching your dog to sit for treats with the verbal cue “sit”. You can get your dog to sit for every single kibble that they eat in the day. Use the verbal cue “down” and get them to lay down for food rewards as well. From that exercise, it will learn that sitting/laying down calmly will get your attention, but that barking or whining will not be rewarded. Eventually, when you say the word “down”, your dog should automatically lay down. Next, you ask for a “down” and give them treats for staying down – gradually practice taking a step back, then coming back to the dog and rewarding it with a treat before it gets up. Eventually, your dog should start lying down when you are several steps away because they associate that behavior with you returning to give it a reward. This same training can be applied when you leave the room – start with extremely short periods of time outside of the room then increase their duration.
Behavioral modification is the cornerstone to treatment of separation anxiety – all of the other tools are just aids to facilitate creating the new desired behaviors.
At Mitchell Veterinary Services, we find that separation anxiety is fairly common in our patients. It doesn’t have to be an embarrassing condition to be endured but is treatable by using the tools at our disposal. We welcome any questions you may have about your pet’s behavior.