Separation anxiety is something that a lot of pet parents are dealing with. This isn’t just limited to new pet parents who adopted or purchased new pets during the pandemic, but all pets who have gotten used to having their owners home with them during the last 20 months.
As more and more starts to open back up, pet parents are returning to work, or even just leaving the house more, the pets are left with increasing separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety can occur in the absence or virtual absence of the pet parent. So how can we tell the difference between separation anxiety and normal stress at being left alone? Normal stress is typically age appropriate, self-limiting and will dissipate within 1-3 minutes. Separation anxiety will usually present in destructive behavior, vocalization, and elimination.
Be careful not to confuse separation anxiety with isolation distress. In isolation distress, the anxiety is not focused on a particular relationship, but simply the fact that they are alone. In these cases, any warm body will do to relieve the stress.
Now let’s break this down a little…
Separation anxiety in pets
Destructive behavior will typically occur around departure routes. This means doors and windows, anywhere associated with escape, and can be associated with claustrophobia.
Vocalization tends to have a repetitive nature and be higher in pitch, which can be likened to immature distress calls you would associate with young puppies.
Elimination can include urination, defecation, or both, and is NOT a house-training issue, but an emotional response to the separation.
How can you tell the difference between house training and separation anxiety related elimination? Look for the number and location of the eliminations. In instances of separation anxiety, the elimination events will occur in the area where distress is occurring (by the departure routes).
With inadequate house-training accidents tend to be away from areas where sleep, play and food are associated.
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Identifying separation anxiety in dogs
So how can we identify dogs with separation anxiety? The best way is with video evidence of how the pet is behaving in 4 separate conditions: (1) when the owner is present; (2) during departure; (3) during separation and/or isolation; and (4) during greeting.
- In the owner’s presence, attention seeking, highly bonded Velcro dogs tend to be huge exhibitors of separation anxiety. However, you do not need to see these behaviors for separation anxiety to occur.
- Behavior change during departure can also be a red flag. This can include hypersalivation, withdrawal, panting, pacing, aggression, or lip licking. Some dogs may not experience any changes during departure.
- Signs during absence which can include destruction, vocalization and elimination typically will occur within 5-30 minutes and can persist in 20-30 minute cycles. These cycles can vary with length of isolation and tend to worsen after prolonged exposure to the owners, like during vacation or even weekends.
- Greeting behavior tends to include exuberant or heightened greeting. Again, this is not a requirement.
Now that we have identified and confirmed separation anxiety in this pet, how do we help?
Managing separation anxiety
Managing separation anxiety can reduce continued trauma and keep the pet safe and below threshold.
We want to avoid unnecessary episodes of isolation/ separation and minimize unnecessary absences.
Of course we can’t ask people to just stay home and never leave, or not go to work, but we can work to be mindful about duration and frequency of isolation events. For example, if you need to get groceries after work it is best to get the groceries before going home, rather than to go home, then have to leave again causing a separate isolation event.
Exercise can also be an important tool in management. While it will NOT fix emotionally driven behaviors, it can help to elevate mood. This does not mean that you should run the dog for an hour and then leave. We want the pet to be as settled and calm as possible when the owner leaves.
Behavior modification helps change perception and response and decrease arousal. It is best to start with what the owner can do while they’re there. This includes independence training, habituation of departure cues and graduated departure.
Independence training is particularly important for highly attached Velcro dogs and can be instituted in 3 steps:
- Step 1: Limit passive physical contact and reward independent activity.
This does not mean, don’t touch your dog, but it does mean that you can set up a comfy spot for your dog to lay on that’s soft that’s not on your lap.
When rewarding independent activity, we want to use calm voices. This will help reinforce the independent activity with the pet.
Not if, but when the pet jumps back up and to attention, the owner should go back to their activity and wait for the calm independent behavior, like laying down or going to their bed and repeat the reinforcement. Most pets will catch on after 3-4 repetitions of rewarding settled behavior.
It is important not to move on to step 2 until step 1 is successful! In the past I have attempted multiple steps at once, which has been frustrating, difficult, and unrewarding. By firmly establishing and having success with step 1 before moving on we are setting the owners and the pets up for better success!
- Step 2: Redirect attention seeking behavior.
Setting the pet up for success with other stimulating activities like puzzle toys can be very beneficial, as well as training techniques such as “place” or “bed” which redirects the pet to their own place to sit/lay.
- Step 3: Ignore attention seeking behavior.
This does not mean that the pet should be given less attention! This means that we should reward independent behaviors with attention. Again, you must be sure to use calm voices. Throwing a party will only increase excitement and reduce settled behavior.
Habituation of departure cues
In addition to working on independence we also want to work on habituation of departure cues.
Once departure cues have been identified we can start pairing them with other mundane activities, like picking up the car keys, then going to read a book. Or putting on your shoes then sitting down to watch TV. Cue can be related multiple times per day when the pet is already settled.
Starting habituation while the pet is already worked up can be counterproductive.
Graduated departure helps to prepare the pet for the owner’s departure and the period of isolation or separation. We can start by closing doors in the home with the owner present, increasing to leaving for short durations and pairing with a long-lasting food stimulus.
Every pet is different on how long they can be left before they are over threshold and signs of separation anxiety occur. For some it may be 10 seconds, others 30 minutes. Use of a video camera in these situations can help to time departure periods and onset to clinical signs. This will help to keep the pet below threshold during training.
Long lasting rewards would work best if food could fall from the sky the moment the owner leaves the home. Use of timed food bowls propped on the kitchen counter to scatter food right after you leave or Furbo treat release or even long lasting puzzle toys or Kongs can be useful here.
During isolation/separation we want to promote a calm environment. This may include blocking exposure to arousing stimuli, audio strategies like playing music or white noise, allowing access to another pet for comfort, and or situation or maintenance medications.
Pheromones and supplements such as Adaptil, Zylkene, Solliquin, Composure Pro and melatonin can also be helpful in reducing stress and anxiety during this period.
Finally, greetings should also promote calm behavior and environment. Once the pet is calm and settled, we can reward with attention. It is important NOT to punish destructive behavior.
Separation anxiety medications
Medication is also useful in decreasing the emotional response and altering the threshold to distress.
It is important for owners to understand the medication is a tool to be used in addition to doing the work with training, behavior modification, and management.
While medication alone will reduce emotional stress and stimulation short term, the stress will come back, and the pets will get worse again if they’re not doing the work. In fact, many pets can come off their behavioral modification drugs long term if the owners are doing the work!
We have two types of medical management in these situations, situation medication and maintenance medication.
Situation medications include:
- Diazepam: 0.5-2.9mg/kg Q 4-6 hours
- Alprazolam: 0.02-0.1mg/kg Q 8-12 hours (good in situations where short onset to action is needed)
- Lorazepam: 0.10.2mg/kg Q 8-12 hours
- Trazodone: 5-7mg/kg Q 8-24 hours PRN
- Clonidine: 0.01-0.05mg/kg Q 8-12 hours PRN (helps to block the fight or flight response)
If the medications are tolerated but not helpful move up a notch or change to a different medication.
It is important to move quickly as these medications will either help or they won’t. Spending weeks trying to get one medication/dose to work is frustrating for you, the owner and the pet and will likely be ineffective in the long run.
Maintenance medications most used in separation anxiety include:
- Reconcile: (dog formulation of fluoxetine) 0.5-2mg/kg SID or divided into BID (OK to split unevenly)
- Clomicalm: 2-4mg/kg BID
Brand name medications matter to some pets, but not to all. When using the brand name, it is guaranteed to be specific across batches. When using generic mediations, if the owner reports that the medication has suddenly stopped working or is less effective always ask when they last picked up/ started a new prescription.
If there was a change the pharmacy should be able to tract which generic was previously filled to continue this going forward.
When treating for separation anxiety, there is always a potential for relapse with change. This can be anything from a vacation to an illness or a move.
It is important to have open and honest conversations with clients about what to expect, and that set back can happen.
By working together with a clear goal and communication we can help to guide our clients and patients through these stumbling blocks to reach our goals together!
Dr. Kelly Dunham is Area Medical Director for Greater NYC.