You can hear your dog howling and barking as soon as you close the front door to leave. You return home hours later to find your pup has chewed up the remote control and trashed the kitchen trash can. Is your pet just a misbehaving “bad dog”?
No. Your dog may be suffering from separation anxiety, a syndrome that has become widely recognized and well-defined in the last ten years, says Dr Bill Craig. Dr Craig is a San Antonio, Texas veterinarian with 30 years of experience who is now Chief Medical Director at PurinaCare, which provides pet health insurance.
“A lot of people aren’t even aware of the concept of separation anxiety until the pet starts demonstrating some of the behaviour changes associated with it,” says Dr Craig. “They think the dog’s just gone off its rocker.”
What is Separation Anxiety?
“It’s a co-dependent kind of relationship between the dog and owner, so when the owner is gone, the dog goes into this anxiety syndrome,” explains Dr Craig. It can happen after the dog and owner have spent some time intensely bonding — such as in summer when the dog has spent several months being surrounded by the family’s children — then all of a sudden, the dog is left alone when a routine is resumed. Everybody goes back to work or school.
“The dog is thinking, ‘Oh my god, I’ve been abandoned, I don’t know what to do,” says Dr Craig, which leaves the dog confused and disoriented. The dog, especially if it’s a puppy who was obtained during summer’s out-of-school months, has never known any other kind of experience other than all of the pack members being around all of the time.
What are the symptoms of separation anxiety?
Symptoms fall into three categories, explains Dr Craig, with some dogs showing all three types of symptoms and other dogs offering only one or two. They are:
- Excessive vocalization: Barking and howling because they’re having an anxiety attack and have no control over how they’re behaving — just like someone claustrophobic or afraid of heights, says Dr Craig. It’s abnormal, uncontrolled behaviour.
- Uncontrolled elimination: Urinating and defecating in the house, including nervous diarrhoea.
- Destructive behaviour: Tearing up the carpet, pulling pillows off the sofa and ripping them apart, digging a hole in the living room floor to try to get out, etc.
How can you treat your dog’s separation anxiety?
behaviour modification techniques are helpful in re-programming or correcting the behaviour, says Dr Craig. “You have to go through confidence-building action that gives the dog self-confidence that the world is not coming to an end and pack members are coming back again at the end of the day, says Dr Craig.
Some tips provided by Dr Craig and Petfinder.com, the largest online database of adoptable pets, include the following:
- Start early: If you have a new pet, you can begin anti-separation-anxiety training right away, says Petfinder.com.
- Don’t make a big production about leaving the house: Leave. Don’t clutch your dog to your chest and gush how much you’re going to miss him while you’re gone.
- Don’t make a big deal when you come home: Your dog will be so excited to see you when you get home that he will likely be jumping on you, doing flips, and turning in circles. Don’t hug and kiss him and exclaim, “Mommy’s home!” “That’s counter-productive,” says Dr Craig. Discourage such exciting behaviour and wait until your dog settles down and interact with your dog on a calmer level of action, says Dr Craig. If necessary, ignore your dog until he settles down.
- Exercise with your dog before leaving: A tired dog is less likely to experience stress when you go, says Petfinder.com. Try walking your dog in the mornings before everyone leaves for school and work.
- Don’t let your dog follow you from room to room: Isn’t it endearing how your dog wants to be near you all the time? Yes, it’s cute, but not healthy. Place your dog in a sit-stay or down-stay to keep him from following you and your family members around the house, says Petfinder.com, then praise him quietly when you return to the room he’s in.
- Create a “safe zone” for your dog: Put a blanket on the floor for your dog and leave some clothing items that smell of the family members’ scents, suggests Dr Craig.
- Keep your dog distracted while alone: Give your dog something to do, such as working to get treats out of a Kong dog toy. (Make sure not to give a toy or treat that could potentially be harmful if left to play with unsupervised.) Leave the television or radio on to provide some distracting noises.
- Vary your routine: Getting up in the morning, taking a shower, and putting on a pot of coffee all “key” our dogs into anticipating being abandoned again, says Dr Craig. “Go through all of that same morning routine, but don’t leave,” he says. “Sit down and read the paper.” Mix it up so your dog doesn’t associate certain behaviours with your impending exit.
- Practice gradual departures: Gather your purse, wallet or keys, but only leave the house for a few minutes. Increase these training trips by five or 10 minutes at a time. “After a couple of days, your pet should be comfortable being alone for a few hours,” says Petfinder.com.
What about medications to treat separation anxiety?
Canine anti-anxiety drugs such as Clomicalm and Reconcile are available, says Dr Craig. “But It’s not a simple thing of giving the dog a pill, and they’re fine,” he says. The medications can help alleviate some of the behaviour, but should always be used in conjunction with behaviour modification therapy and should not be looked at as a long-term solution.
“It might take several weeks of regular behaviour modification training,” says Dr Craig, “but if you’re conscientious about your work with the dog, these dogs will be perfectly normal without any [medication] support after you finish the behaviour modification.”
Should you confine a dog with separation anxiety in a crate while you’re out?
Not a good idea, says Dr Craig, who says the dog may try to chew or dig its way out. “I had one dog that I treated several years ago with separation anxiety,” recalls Dr Craig. “It wasn’t an end-of-summer thing, but a military family that had just moved to San Antonio and the wife started working again and was now gone instead of being at home. They put the dog in a crate, and the dog chewed on the wire mesh door of the crate and broke one of its canine teeth. It’s almost an obsessive-compulsive response. The dog has no real control over what it’s doing.”
How do pet owners contribute to their dogs’ separation anxiety?
We doting dog owners can be contributing to and perpetuating separation anxiety in our dogs, says Dr Craig. “We tend to make our dogs into family members and make them a part of every activity, treating our pets as surrogate children or surrogate spouses.” This kind of behaviour is not healthy, says Dr Craig. Petfinder.com agrees.
“Both adults and children can over-bond with their pets by spending every moment with them,” states Petfinder.com. “While your family should certainly show love and affection to your animal, remember that [promoting] independence is healthy.”
So even though we’re tempted to take our dogs — especially the smaller breeds — everywhere with us, it will be better for our dogs and us to leave them at home occasionally.
Does PurinaCare Pet Insurance cover behaviour modification?
Yes. “Our insurance policies will cover the cost of behaviour modification therapies and medications, as long as the problem was not present when the policy was issued or is a pre-existing condition,” explains Dr Craig. The behaviour modification therapy must also be administered by a licensed veterinarian to be covered by PurinaCare.
When you apply for PurinaCare pet health insurance, the company will evaluate your puppy for any existing problems. With a newly adopted dog or one you found as a stray, the company will likely ask the dog to be examined by a veterinarian and then “take the risk of covering the dog with something that came in under the radar at the time policy was issued,” says Dr Craig.
PurinaCare Insurance Services, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Nestlé Purina PetCare Company, was started a year and a half ago. “We feel we offer benefits that a lot of other companies don’t,” notes Dr Craig. “One of the other things that make our policy unique is that we will cover hereditary problems, such as hip dysplasia, a common problem for large breed dogs,” Dr Craig says. “A lot of companies will not cover hereditary problems, but as long as the problem wasn’t existing at the time the policy was issued, PurinaCare will cover anything that needs to be done, up to and including a total hip replacement.”
If you suspect your dog may be suffering from separation anxiety, Dr Craig recommends consulting a licensed veterinarian.