Separation anxiety in dogs

A multi-pronged approach is used to treat separation anxiety

Separation anxiety is one of the more frustrating yet treatable problems encountered in canine behavioral medicine. While there are many possible theories as to the cause of this sometimes sudden anxiety, from neurotransmitter imbalances in the brain, to prior abuse or neglect, to even chemical or vaccination reactions, we’re often left with uncertainty as to why dogs suddenly develop this disturbing disorder. Manifestations of separation anxiety are typically seen within a few minutes of an animal guardian leaving the room or home and can most commonly involve excessive vocalization, defecation, urination or destruction of furniture, and even self-mutilation or harm. In some cases, dogs may become so anxious they will go through windows or doors to get to their animal guardians.

Many pets must be in the presence of their guardians much of the time, often following them from room to room, making life quite difficult for both guardian and pet. In spite of the various uncertain causes of this common and emerging behavioral disorder, we have been able to help many pets through a combination of behavior modification, in working with a trainer or veterinarian who specializes in behavioral disorders, along with drug therapy when indicated.

Usually a multi-pronged approach utilizing both behavioral therapy and drug therapy achieve the best results. The most common form of behavioral therapy involves what is called practicing graduated departures. This method is used by a guardian slowly lengthening the time away from the dog in increasing increments. This process is described in more detail in books such as, How to Get Your Dog to Do What You Want by Warren Eckstein, a well known behavioral expert.

The use of naturally calming products has come with mixed results in my experience when treating this disorder, but is always worth a try in an individual pet, especially if there are any drug reactions or sensitivities. The products I’ve found most successful include great calming flower essences like Be Serene, as well as the product Composure by Vetri-Science. This latter product has some wonderful natural calming agents that are even present in leading sleep aids for humans, without the excessive sedation or paradoxical excitation seen with many other products.

Such products as Quiet Moments I’ve found much less successful in helping these anxious pets, whose main ingredient chamomile, I’ve not found helpful in most dogs. A wonderful behavioral modification tip I would suggest to clients would be to consider using the product Comfort Zone for Dogs with the plug in diffuser. This releases a calming pheromone or chemical that can often ease emotional distress, lessen vocalization, and reduce separation anxiety. It also comes in an effective spray that one can use on bedding or furniture to help reduce unwanted urination or defecation during times of stress.

One of the more effective drugs useful for fears and in particular separation anxiety in dogs and for anxiety/aggression to a lesser extent in cats is the prescription drug Fluoxetine (which is generic Prozac).  When used under the guidance and monitoring of your veterinarian, this product along with the behavioral modification techniques suggested here, can often yield excellent results. I have not been as impressed with the prescription tricyclic antidepressant medications such as Amitriptyline or Clomipramine for separation anxiety, as they were originally touted. While Amitriptyline is certainly an economic first choice, when these type of drugs do work, the more expensive Clomipramine has a better chance at helping these pets. However, because of the wide dose range needed in various animals using Clomipramine, I’ve found that the generic Prozac or Fluoxetine works better in most cases.

Alternative therapies like acupuncture and Chinese herbs can often help, as well as homeopathy. However, if exploring these other therapies, a guardian should make sure that the veterinarian has received adequate advanced training in these techniques before committing to these worthy alternatives, which can become quite expensive for the guardian, since such natural approaches usually require much time, patience and commitment on both the guardian and veterinarian’s part.

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  1. I recently rescued a 5 year-old Jack Russell mix who I think has TERRIBLE seperation anxiety. If I am out of her eye sight she has to get up and move to where she can see/hear me better. While it has gotten better when I’m home (i.e. I can go upstairs without her following me as long as I come down within 30 minutes) her behavior when I leave is actually frightening. I bought her a wire crate which she breaks out of and I have no clue how. So, I switched her to a plastic airline crate to keep her contained. She barks, drools, and profusely urinates (even though she has no accidents in the house when I am home). On top of that she has bent the metal door which cut her gums and made her bleed everywhere. So far she has only been in there for about 3 hours maximum but I am worried what would happen if I ever had to keep her in there longer. I have been running her for a minimum of 30 minutes every morning and also taking her on a walk to “empty” herself, then I ignore her for 15 or so minutes before I leave and when I do leave I make sure she has a chew bone, her favority squeak toy, and a KONG toy usually filled with peanut butter and frozen to make it last longer. Then I turn on talk radio and make sure I do different things every morning before leaving so there are no triggers. Yet, usually within the next 2-3 hours she has covered her crate in urine, has been barking non-stop, and has torn her crate to pieces to try and get out. Do you think adding medication to the behavior techinques I’ve been working on will increase her chances of success? I’m desperate!

  2. Dr. Michael Dym, VMD veterinarianApril 7, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    Sounds like you have indeed tried lots of behavioral techniques. Other options include classical homeopathy which may help but need patience or seeing your local conventional vet for likely script for doggie prozac or clomipriminine.

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