Separation anxiety in dogs

Photo courtesy of Dr. Jonckheer-Sheehy

Photo courtesy of Dr. Jonckheer-Sheehy

Authors:

Kelly Ballantyne, DVM 
Behavior Resident in Private Practice, American College of Veterinary Behaviorists 
Chicagoland Veterinary Behavior Consultants, Chicago, USA  

Valerie Jonckheer-Sheehy, MVB MRCVS MSc LAS 
Behaviour veterinarian
Veterinary Referral Centre de Wagenrenk, Wageningen, The Netherlands


Introduction

Separation anxiety is a prevalent problem, affecting 14-29% of all dogs.  Dogs with separation anxiety exhibit signs of anxiety, fear, or panic, including excessive vocalization, destruction, and house soiling, when they don’t have access to their family members.  This usually occurs when the pet owners are out of the house, but it can also occur when the owners are home but the dog cannot reach them.  Separation anxiety is a serious behavioral issue, affecting the quality of life of the dog and his or her owners.

Signs of a problem

Dogs with separation anxiety can display a variety of behaviors both when the owner prepares to leave the house and when home alone.  If you see any of these signs in your dog, contact your veterinarian for help immediately.

Pre-departure signs:

Dogs with separation anxiety can learn to associate many of his or her owner’s pre-departure activities with their impending absence.  Often, affected dogs will show signs of anxiety as their owner prepares to leave.  These may include:

  • following or shadowing behaviors
  • nose licking
  • yawning
  • pacing
  • panting
  • whining or barking

*Some dogs may even attempt to block their owner’s exit from the house or react aggressively (bark, growl, snap, or bite) as their owner leaves.

Destructive behavior, such as this intense chewing around the doorway, is a sign of separation anxiety and can result in self-injury.  Photo courtesy of Dr. Jonckheer-Sheehy 

Destructive behavior, such as this intense chewing around the doorway, is a sign of separation anxiety and can result in self-injury.  Photo courtesy of Dr. Jonckheer-Sheehy 

Owner absent signs:

  • excessive vocalization (whining, barking, or howling)
  • house soiling
  • destructive behavior 
    • targeted items are often those that are handled regularly by the owner and may include clothing, shoes, blankets or bedding, and remote controls
    • destructive behavior may also be targeted at doorways or windows (as the dog tries to escape and find his or her owner)
  • self-injury
    • most injuries involve the nose, teeth, gums, and paws which are injured during escape attempts
  • excessive salivation (pools of liquid on the floor)
  • decreased appetite and thirst

 

If you are not sure if your dog has separation anxiety, the best thing you can do is to bring your dog to your veterinarian. Your vet may request you to capture a video of your dog while he or she is home alone. 

Which dogs does this condition affect?

Separation anxiety affects dogs of all breeds, sexes, and ages.  It appears more commonly in dogs adopted from shelters.  It’s unclear whether this is because dogs are commonly relinquished to shelters because of their separation anxiety or whether being relinquished predisposes dogs to separation anxiety. 

What causes it?

Most puppies show some degree of distress when first learning to be home alone.  However, in most cases these behaviors improve quickly and resolve within 1-2 weeks.  If the behaviors don’t improve or worsen within that time, you should seek help from your veterinarian immediately. In other cases, separation anxiety can develop when there is a sudden change in routine or environment.  This most commonly occurs in dogs that are generally anxious.  Possible triggers include an extended period of constant contact with the owners followed by a sudden separation, a move to a new home, and family members leaving or joining the household. Separation anxiety often occurs with other anxiety disorders. In one study, dogs with noise phobias had a high probability (88%) of also having separation anxiety.  Separation anxiety can also develop in senior dogs because of medical illnesses, cognitive dysfunction, or due to a decreased ability to cope with changes and stress.

Management

Photo courtesy of Dr. Jonckheer-Sheehy

Photo courtesy of Dr. Jonckheer-Sheehy

  • Avoid triggers:  Each experience of panic when left home alone will only worsen the dog’s separation anxiety.  You should avoid leaving your dog home alone until appropriate treatment has been implemented.  If this is not possible, alternatives may include dog daycares, pet sitters, or bringing your dog to work if allowed by your employer.
  • Don’t use punishment:  Don’t punish your dog physically or verbally for his or her separation anxiety signs, including house soiling, destructive behavior, barking or howling.  House soiling and destructive behaviors likely occurred hours before you return home, so your dog won’t be able to associate these behaviors with the punishment.  Devices that implement punishment immediately, such as bark collars or ultrasonic devices must not be used. They don’t address the underlying cause of the barking and will make your dog more anxious.  
  • Reinforce independence by giving your dog a long lasting treat while he or she rests on a bed or mat at a distance from you.  Start with a distance where your dog can remain comfortable and engaged with his or her chew toy and gradually increase the distance over several days to weeks.
  • Distractions:  Give long lasting treats several minutes prior to your departures.  Options include Kong® toys filled with favorite treats or other interactive style toys.
  • Departures and arrivals:  Sometimes people are advised to ignore their dog when they arrive or leave the house. This is bad advice and will make an already anxious dog more anxious and his or her life even less predictable.  When you come or leave your home its ok to greet your dog in a calm manner but keep it low key and don’t make a big fuss over him or her. Feeding and walks should take place at least 15-30 minutes before you intend to leave the house. 

Treatment

In many cases, separation anxiety requires a combination of medical therapy with anti-anxiety medications, environmental management and behavior modification to control the affected dog’s anxiety or panic.  If your pet is causing significant damage to your home, injuring itself, barking, howling, or whining, or salivating persistently in your absence, seek help immediately from a behavior veterinarian.  Dogs with separation anxiety experience significant emotional distress which compromises their welfare.   There are effective treatments available to help your dog, but the prognosis for improvement decreases the longer he or she experiences separation anxiety without appropriate treatment.


© Kelly Ballantyne and Valerie Jonckheer-Sheehy 2014

This article may be reproduced with written permission from the authors.

What every dog owner should know about fireworks!

Authors:

Valerie Jonckheer-Sheehy MVB MRCVS MSc LAS
Behaviour veterinarian

Veterinary Referral Centre de Wagenrenk, Wageningen, The Netherlands

Kelly Ballantyne DVM
Behavior Resident in Private Practice, American College of Veterinary Behaviorists

Chicagoland Veterinary Behavior Consultants, Chicago, USA 

Introduction

Every year millions of dogs all over the world are terrified by the sound of fireworks.  Think of Bonfire night in the UK, Independence Day (July 4th) in the USA, New Year’s Eve (all over the world) and Diwali Festival in India. Development of a reactive, anxious, fearful or phobic response to the sound of fireworks is a very common behavioral problem in dogs.  All too often dogs affected by this condition also suffer from other sound sensitivities (e.g. storms) and anxiety disorders, particularly separation anxiety.

Signs of a problem

When should you be concerned? Your dog may have a problem if he repeatedly reacts in any of the following ways to a sound such as fireworks*         

common signs of fear.png

*Please note that this list is not exhaustive and displaying one of these signs in response to a sound does not definitively mean that a dog has a sound sensitivity.  If your dog shows one or several of these signs in response to any noise then you should contact your veterinarian.

Which dogs do these conditions affect?

Noise phobias can affect dogs of any age, breed, gender or neutering status. However, herding breeds such as German Shepherd Dogs and Border Collies seem to be more susceptible to developing this condition. Young and elderly dogs may also be more susceptible.

What causes it?

No one is completely sure what causes noise phobias. We do know that dogs can inherit the condition or they might develop it after a traumatic experience or some other factor. It may involve difficulties in information processing in the brain but it doesn’t seem to be due to an abnormally increased ability to hear. It would seem that dogs with fearful temperaments might be more likely to be “sensitive” to noises. If your dog has a true noise phobia then he or she is likely to have one or more relatives that suffer from it and any offspring will inherit it too. Thus breeding from affected dogs is not recommended.

Medical conditions

There is an array of medical conditions that your veterinarian should rule out when considering this diagnosis. Your veterinarian may take a detailed history, perform a complete physical and neurological examination of your dog and may take blood samples from your dog for testing to rule out some of these conditions.

Management

  1. Avoid triggers: Noise phobic dogs should not be brought to firework displays in the hope that they’ll get used to it. In fact, doing so will probably intensify their fears.  Situations with very predictable and defined fireworks events should be avoided at all costs. Remove the dog from the location during a firework event.
  2. Modify or remove triggers: Modify or remove triggers such as the sound of fireworks. Consider teaching your dog (in a positive way) to wear ear plugs or noise canceling headphones, such as Mutt Muffs (www.safeandsoundpets.com). You could keep him in a sound insulated area or use acoustic tiles. Playing competing noise from the TV/radio or using white noise might be helpful in some cases. Be sure not to play it so loud that the background music itself exacerbates the problem. Make sure all blinds, shutters, and curtains are shut during a firework event.
  3. Don’t use punishment: Don’t punish your dog physically or shout at him if he reacts to the sound of fireworks. This will only make him more anxious/reactive and he may even react aggressively to you. It may also teach him that he was right to be worried in the first place.
  4. Safe haven: Create a safe haven for your dog with your dog’s blanket, cushion and one or two familiar toys. Feed him there or leave tidbits in there frequently for him to find. Let your dog get used to this before the fireworks season (it can be a place that the dog is already accustomed too). If you think your dog will want to escape to that place during a firework event then try to get him to go and settle there before the fireworks start. Ideally this would be an inner room.
  5. Medication: Your veterinarian may prescribe anxiolytic medication to aid treatment and minimize your dog’s suffering. The goal of using anxiolytic medication is to reduce the intensity of your dog’s fears.  These medications should be used in combination with a behavior modification plan outlined by your veterinarian.  All medications should be prescribed by a veterinarian. Please don’t give your dog any medications without consulting your veterinarian first as you may seriously harm your dog’s health.
  6. Diet: Your veterinarian may recommend giving your dog different food or adding certain supplements to his diet. Please don’t give your dog any supplement or change his diet without consulting your veterinarian first.
  7. Pheromones and homeopathic treatments: There is no robust scientific evidence to prove that these are useful in treating dogs with this condition. Please note that homeopathic treatments are not always safe.
  8. Anxiety Wrap: There is no robust scientific evidence to show it reduces anxiety in firework sensitive dogs. However, wearing the Anxiety wrap probably won’t harm your dog if you have taught him to accept wearing it in a positive manner.  You should stay with him whilst he wears it and ensure he doesn’t over heat or become entangled in it.
  9. Comforting the dog: Try to be home or have someone stay with your dog during a firework event. There is no evidence that proves comforting your dog or ignoring him makes him worse or helps. It may help some dogs to hold them firmly and lean into them. Only do this with dogs who approach you and if you think it will benefit them. Release them if they struggle. Long firm massage strokes may also help.
  10. Playing CDs of firework sounds? In some cases behavior modification techniques such as desensitization and counter conditioning to sounds from a CD will be recommended by your veterinarian. Essentially, this is getting your dog used to the sound of fireworks from a CD at a volume that doesn’t provoke a full blown fearful or panic reaction and rewarding him for that.  You gradually work your way through a program until your dog perceives the sound of fireworks as being a good thing! You should not engage in this or any other behavior modification program without first consulting your veterinarian. Your veterinarian or a qualified canine behavior therapist recommended by your veterinarian can help you with this part of the program if you need additional support.

Remember

If your dog reacts to fireworks you need to bring him to your veterinarian for a complete physical work up so that he can be screened and treated for other anxiety disorders as his welfare may be severely compromised. Your veterinarian may refer you to a behavior veterinarian in more complex cases.

© Valerie Jonckheer-Sheehy and Kelly Ballantyne 2013

This article may be reproduced with written permission from the authors.

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