EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Janice Mitchell is a veterinarian with Island Animal Hospital, Little Current Veterinarian Services, as well as a beekeeper in her spare time.
The bow wow blues: The fear of being alone
by Dr. Janice Mitchell
There has been much collateral damage from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the trickle down effect is and will be noted in our family canine members. For the past several months, our loyal companions have been by our sides and have adapted to families being around all the time and of course, loving all the undivided attention. However, this routine will be disrupted yet again as folks begin to head back to work and school. Pets will find themselves home alone for the first time in months, and they may experience separation anxiety. Because dogs are highly social, and most dogs thrive best when they have company, being alone for some dogs results in separation anxiety. Interestingly, we never diagnose separation anxiety in our feline companions, thus coined the term “cool cat.”
Signs of separation anxiety include increased barking, howling and whining, destructive behaviours and having “accidents” in the house. Many dogs with separation anxiety are very attached to a person or persons. Separation anxiety is like a panic attack in a person and can damage the quality of life for both dog and human.
Changes in the home or peoples’ schedules can cause separation anxiety. Examples include: a recent move, spending more time with the dog while on vacation or because of illness, death in the family or death of another pet. Some dogs have trouble being alone from a very early age and develop separation anxiety despite never going through any major events. It is common for dogs from shelters and dogs with single adult owners to have some separation anxiety. Dogs can be any age when separation anxiety appears, however it does seem to worsen as they age as we are all less flexible when we grow older. If left untreated, the condition tends to get worse.
For this reason, instead of launching into treatment techniques right away, I must emphasize how important it is to prevent separation anxiety, right from the get go. Obviously, the easiest is to start right from puppyhood. It is crucial that you let your puppy spend time on its own in a comfortable, secure spot. Just like we humans, the social dog must learn to like its own company. Note that a tired puppy is a content puppy so exercise and mental stimulation is so very crucial. As well, if teaching puppy to be on his/her own, it is a good thing to leave them with a stimulating toy such as a stuffed KONG toy. Humans don’t like to be in an environment on their own without some sort of mental stimulation, so it is only reasonable to expect your pet to want a toy to bide the time.
Now for the treatment of separation anxiety. It can be tough. Why? Because the behaviour mainly occurs when your dog is home alone away from you. So, you’re not there to help your dog. For some dogs, anxiety begins before you even leave the house, with the start of your morning routine. There are even dogs who can tell the difference between workdays and days off and are only anxious on workdays.
Treatment often involves a combination of medications and behaviour modification. Training alone is never the answer and medications are often needed to treat your dog’s emotional state before we can help them learn to cope better alone. Often the earlier you start medications the more successful treatment will be. There are long acting medications such clomipramine (Clomicalm) and fluoxetine, commonly known as Prozac. Both these medications increase serotonin levels and can take four to eight weeks to fully work. When serotonin levels are high (such as when we fall in love or eat chocolate), we feel good and sleep better. These medications are often combined with shorter-acting drugs such as trazodone, gabapentin or alprazolam (ie. Xanax) to achieve rapid results and address the panic component when people first leave. Medication should not be expected to work by itself, it should always be combined with behaviour modification. All the above medications need a veterinarian derived prescription.
There are also many over the counter products. Nutraceuticals with ingredients like L-theanine (an amino acid found in green tea), tryptophan (an amino acid found in milk and sesame seeds), hydrolyzed milk proteins (so this is why cheese makes me happy!) and probiotics. Medicinal cannabidiol (CBD for short) is also showing some promise for anxiety behaviours. Calming pheromones and Thundershirts (body hugging pet clothing) are also extra adjunctive aids to help out our canine friends. Some of these products have small research studies to suggest that they may be helpful, especially for mild to moderate anxiety. Most importantly, they are unlikely to cause problems. These over the counter products are frequently more expensive than the prescription medications listed above. Your veterinarian may recommend adding them to the drug regime when the pet is doing well to see if anxiety can be reduced further without adding more pharmaceuticals.
So when you do have to leave your pet alone, two rules: 1) don’t come and go; and 2) avoid the emotional goodbyes and hellos! Dogs with separation anxiety often have panic attacks when people leave them. If you forget something, don’t go back to get it. If you have several errands, do them all in one trip. Run errands right after work; don’t come home and go out again. It is important also that upon leaving and when returning, you don’t get your pet in a heightened state by kissing and doting on them and then suddenly walking out the door. You have just left them hanging. Instead, quietly slip out the door and when you return, wait for several minutes until your pet has calmed down before you greet them. This quietened behaviour helps to avoid the emotional swings on your dog.
As stated earlier, create a relaxing environment for your dog. Food dispensing and puzzle toys can help reduce your dog’s overall stress level. This can help the dog to be more independent. Feeding all meals out of these devices can keep your dog from seeing these toys as a sign that you’re going to leave. Classical music or audio books can also soothe your pet. Be careful about talk radio and TV as these can have a stimulating effect—no Jerry Springer or political debates!
As you can see, there are many steps involved in alleviating separation anxiety. If in doubt, always contact your vet. Between your vet, their veterinary team or a trusted animal trainer/behaviourist, you and your canine friend will be on the road to more content times. It’s time to change the tune from ‘I’m so lonesome I could cry’ to ‘Grey skies are going to clear up, put on a happy face.’