One of the most difficult yet entertaining parts of my job is to be a “pet psychologist." I often hear a client say that his dog was “mad” at him, so the furry beast destroyed the living room while he was away. Some dogs even go so far as to bite and become aggressive before their owners’ departure. Many people also claim that “presents” their pets left on the floor are personal attacks, imagining the mischievous thoughts as they decided which rug to soil. Among the numerous behavioral conditions I encounter, these destructive behaviors can point to a diagnosis of separation anxiety.
Dogs that are separation anxious usually behave normally when their owners are present. However, after owners are gone, they panic and can have a wide range of symptoms — from mild signs such as drooling and not eating — to destroying parts of the home and suffering injuries in their escape attempts. Most of the behaviors occur immediately after departure, so an accident on the floor just before an owner returns from a long day is not anxiety related. A hidden video camera may be useful in diagnosis if the signs are not completely clear. Separation anxiety can occur in young dogs that never fully adapt to being separated from their owners, or can be triggered at an older age by a move or major event. This condition may also be more common in dogs with other anxiety disorders, such as noise phobias.
We can manage or attempt to treat separation anxiety. Management involves arranging the dog’s day so that people are always present, or taking the dog to daycare. Simple changes such as allowing the dog to have free run of the home versus one room, or confining the dog to a crate while the owner is gone could help — but often do not. In fact, crating an anxious dog may be dangerous, as teeth can be damaged on the metal bars during escape attempts. Only try this after discussing your dog’s situation with your veterinarian.
Treatment for separation anxiety usually begins with a behavior modification plan. For food motivated pets, a Kong toy stuffed with treats or frozen peanut butter may be all it takes to “forget” about panicking when their beloved owner leaves. Most anxious dogs are not so easily fooled — so the next step is to change the departure routine. I tell clients to leave the house through a different door, or change the order of events in their morning routine (these “cues” cause anxiety to build even before they leave). If a dog sees an owner leave the house without a coat or shoes, he will be more likely to think the person will come right back inside, and not have a panic episode for the entire day. You get the idea … be creative!
Over time, dogs can be desensitized to departure cues. This means they have to see cues without an associated departure. Picking up the keys and putting them back down repeatedly is an example. Picking up the keys and giving a treat is an example of counterconditioning — associating a bad cue with a good reward. Gradually, the morning routine can become a positive experience, and decreasing the anxiety will decrease the likelihood of a destructive panic event.
Many dogs need medical therapy for control of anxiety, especially if a behavior modification plan is not enough, and I do not hesitate to use medical intervention immediately in patients suffering from severe anxiety. Humans with anxiety disorders truly suffer, so imagine what it must be like for a pet that cannot understand his ailment. As angry as a person may be that his dog just chewed up the leather sofa, he must remember that the dog did not have “fun” doing it, nor did the dog intend to “get revenge.” Medications include natural supplements for mild cases to heavy anxiolytics that can cause sedation. Discuss medical treatment with your veterinarian, and never use your own medications on your pets without asking!
Most anxiety conditions worsen with age, so talk to your veterinarian now if you suspect your dog may have separation anxiety. If your dog has been treated for separation anxiety, be aware that a move, vacation, or a change in the household could cause a relapse. Don’t consider getting rid of a problem dog until these recommended steps have been tried. You may just find you can live in peace and harmony with your little gremlin, after all!
Dr. Sara Smith is a 2008 graduate of the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine and an associate veterinarian at Delphos Animal Hospital. She resides near Spencerville with her husband, Brian, son Owen, daughter Evelyn, two dogs and five cats.