You and your dog have a serious bond. You are his whole world, and you can’t imagine life without him. But … whenever you have to leave the house, your dog has a problem. He whines. He cries. He paces nervously. After you leave, he might destroy the moldings around the door frame, bark and howl until the neighbors call the police, forget he was ever housetrained, even chew at his own paws until he bleeds.
All you have to do is pick up your keys or turn off the computer or do any of those ordinary things you do before you have to leave the house, and he goes ballistic.
You’re thinking, “This isn’t normal, is it? Should I do something about it?”
Separation Anxiety: It’s Serious
Actually, you can and should do something about separation anxiety, and you should do it now, says Daniel Aja, DVM, a veterinarian with Cherry Bend Animal Hospital in Michigan, and past president of the American Animal Hospital Association. “Separation anxiety is a behavioral disorder that occurs when dogs show anxiety related to the departure of a loved one. These dogs are hyper-attached to their owners, and that can cause problems.”
According to Aja, household destruction is the No. 1 reason pet owners finally take their anxious pets to the veterinarian. “I’ve had dogs in my office that have torn apart their crates, even breaking their teeth off to do it. We had a Saint Bernard who would crash through the picture window to get out of the house,” Aja says. Unfortunately, pet owners often visit the vet as a last resort instead of a first line of defense — a mistake, because treating separation anxiety early can often solve the problem before it becomes too severe.
Prozac for Pets
Medical therapy for separation anxiety has changed from a protocol of sedatives to treatment with anti-depressants. “Sedatives put dogs in a stupor to suppress the behavior, but they didn’t solve the problem,” Aja explains. Instead, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), the same kinds of medications doctors frequently prescribe for human patients with depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other anxiety problems, seem to work better.
The two most common veterinary choices today are clomipromine hydrochloride and fluoxetine hydrochloride (the same medicine as Prozac). Available only by prescription through a veterinarian, these medicines include correct dosing information for pets. (Don’t give your dog any of your own Prozac or other anti-depressant medication).
For severe cases, and to help calm pets during the two-week-or-so lag time before the SSRI medications kick in, vets also sometimes prescribe alprazolam (Xanax). “This anti-anxiety medication works very quickly in pets during the SSRI wind-up period,” Aja says. Because it works immediately, it’s also good for fireworks and thunderstorm anxiety. You don’t have to wean the dog on and off the medication.”
Some cases of separation anxiety, especially in puppies, don’t require medication and will respond to behavioral training alone, Aja says. For pet owners uncomfortable with the pharmaceutical approach, herbal remedies and/or flower essence formulas designed to ease anxiety might provide some relief for pets, and many work well in conjunction with veterinary treatment.
“Flower essences do not interfere with either behavior training or traditional veterinary care,” says Jann Garrity, class administrator for the Flower Essence Society in California. “Flower essences address the internal emotional condition of the animal to restore balance and appropriate behavior.”
Aja and many other vets also recommend Dog Appeasing Pheromone (D.A.P.), a synthetic pheromone product that releases calming pheromones into the air through a diffuser that you plug in to an electrical outlet. Humans can’t detect the chemical message, but pets can. “I advise keeping the D.A.P. running all the time. “These products do seem to help quite a bit, as an adjunct to the veterinary treatment,” Aja says.
But for pets with any symptoms, see a vet right away, Aja says. “Some pets might respond to natural remedies, but severe separation anxiety is an in-depth problem that needs to be addressed by a professional.”
Aja also stresses that without targeted behavior training and management, no treatment — pharmaceutical or natural — is likely to succeed. “Everybody wants a quick and easy fix. They might come in looking for a miracle drug, and while drugs are sometimes necessary, drugs alone aren’t enough. You need to work with the dog. You need to look at the big picture, or any treatment is prone to failure.”
Tips for Managing Separation Anxiety
While treating a dog for separation anxiety, incorporate these additional strategies:
- Don’t acknowledge or coddle anxious behavior. Instead, reward calm behavior.
- Take your dog to work with you, if you can, or consider doggie daycare or a pet sitter. “Dogs are pack animals, and it isn’t natural for them to be alone all day,” Aja says. “A lot of dogs thrive in a daycare situation because they receive socialization and stimuli all day long.”
- Keep the TV on. “Visual stimulation seems to work better than sound alone to comfort pets,” Aja says.
- Consider another pet to keep your dog company, if feasible. When two pets bond, separation anxiety is sometimes alleviated.
- Provide interactive toys, like frozen Kongs filled with peanut butter and kibble. “Toys that keep the dog busy can distract him so he doesn’t feel so anxious,” Aja says.
- Don’t make a big deal when coming or going, and vary your routine so your dog doesn’t pick up on the same cues every time.
Eve Adamson is a contributing editor to DOG FANCY magazine.
For more on managing separation anxiety, check out the September 2007 issue of DOG FANCY.