Separation anxiety is a phrase that many pet owner and parents are familiar with these days. This makes me happy overall because it means that owners are thinking about their dogs’ feelings more than just being concerned about whether their dog is behaving itself or not. However, I think most owners are unaware of how devastating this condition can be.
Most new dogs suffer from some degree of separation anxiety. Whether you have gotten an 8 to 9 week old puppy from a breeder or you have adopted a dog from the shelter, they will typically suffer some degree of anxiety after being displaced from familiar surroundings and possibly mom and siblings. Most dogs will adapt to this quickly, especially if they have been placed in a caring and affectionate home. In this case, a little compassion, patience and structure will help your new dog or puppy get this through this stage.
Kids go through the same thing when they are little. They may be little social butterflies, and then suddenly, they get upset when you go to leave them. You just reassure them and carry on, and after a few weeks all is well again.
Problematic separation anxiety in dogs is a totally different situation. These dogs are in desperate need of help. I have seen dogs that have broken several teeth, chewed through Plexiglas, dry wall and wood. These dogs will hurt themselves in the panic of being alone, confined or without their person. Every case is a little different, but these are dogs that are in need and in danger. In an ideal world, there would be someone to stay home and be with these guys, but in the real world, that just doesn’t happen.
We had a puppy with separation anxiety when our first child was a baby and I was at home. He couldn’t be crated because he would tear up the crate and get out, but when I would leave for just 20-30 minutes he would destroy things. He ate through both arms of our sofa, he chewed up our stairs and numerous other pieces of furniture. We were truly at our wits end. Fortunately, we got through it and because I was home most of the time, he got over it. But normally, dogs need to be left at home alone on a regular basis, and with separation anxiety, this just doesn’t work.
There are people who are firmly against using antianxiety drugs in their dogs, and there are people who just want “a pill to make it better.” Most people, like me, are somewhere in the middle. Of all the behavior problems I see in dogs, separation anxiety is the one that almost always requires some kind of pharmaceutical intervention.
The biggest challenge with separation anxiety is that the undesirable behavior occurs when no one is around (for the most part). This means that it is nearly impossible to interrupt or redirect the behavior. Additionally, separation anxiety encompasses many behaviors that are self-reinforcing. A dog urinates and or defecates in their crate, and they become more anxious about being in the crate with their own waste. A dog chews through their crate and escapes into the house, and they learn that aggressively chewing and pawing at their crate gets them free. They don’t consider the cost of broken teeth and raw pads.
Separation anxiety can also be a very expensive problem. The cost of repairs to the home can be astronomical. These dogs may chew through drywall, break through glass windows, ruin carpets by soiling them or digging through them, and eating through furniture. I joke that you can’t have anything nice if you have pets or kids, but separation anxiety brings that to a whole new level.
Finally, for those living in an apartment or renting your house, separation anxiety in your dog can get you evicted. Neighbors don’t enjoy the constant noise and your landlord doesn’t have the emotional attachment that you do to your dog. All these components make separation anxiety a problem in which you must stop the behavior and you must stop it fast. Medication is the only humane and effective means of accomplishing this goal. HOWEVER, stopping the symptoms of separation anxiety is only a small part of the big picture.
The purpose of medication in the case of separation anxiety is two-fold. First is to stop the cycle of destructive, self-injurious behavior. Secondly, the goal is to allow the dog to develop alternative, acceptable behaviors.
The first goal is to calm your dog enough to allow him to be contained in a crate, if necessary, to stop the destruction, elimination and vocalization that perpetuate separation anxiety. Basically, I use these drugs to break the cycle and keep owners and dogs together. Most often, these are situational medications that lower the overall level of anxiety to a point at which the dog can cope. If the dog is not in a complete panic, they do not eliminate in their crate and get stressed out about that. If they are not panicked to the point that the pain of breaking teeth and wearing paws until they are raw means nothing to them, they do not break out of their crate. This helps stop the cycle of the self-reinforcing behavior.
The second aspect of medication is a maintenance medication to help change behavior and form alternative pathways in the brain. A dog’s brain with separation anxiety says “I am confined, I must escape!” Medications like fluoxetine help redirect this response to say, “I am confined, but if I am patient, I will eventually be let out.” Of course, this is not an immediate result, and it is not nearly as simple as that, but that is the desired end result.
In addition to medication, management and training are important. You must have a crate that is strong enough to stand up to some abuse. Alternative calming methods often help: like playing soothing music or having a pheromone diffuser close by. Working with your dog to accept the crate, to see it not as the doorway to abandonment, but as a cozy den (when the door is open at least) is also very important. It is important to work on gradual departures, so that your dog doesn’t see your leaving as “forever.” It is also helpful to train your dog that a signal, such as a light coming on, indicates that you will be returning soon.
Every case of separation anxiety is different, but there are many, many ways to help resolve this serious problem and keep these at risk dogs in their homes.