Stress and anxiety are not a uniquely human problem. We see our pets display behaviors that indicate they are stressed or anxious in a given situation and how they express these anxieties can vary from hair pulling (barbering), pacing, digging, chewing/destructive behaviors, barking/vocalizing and inappropriate elimination, to name a few. What is important to understand is that at their root, these behaviors are based in NORMAL behaviors, but are inappropriately or exaggerated in how they are displayed – and over time can get worse. Author and researcher Laurel Braitman, PhD gave an interesting TED talk and wrote a book on the topic – and is worth watching/reading if you are further interested (especially if you’re interested in how study of animal mental disorders relates to evaluation and treatment of human mental disorders).
Separation anxiety – that is, a fearful response when a dog is separated from someone it is attached to – is a common behavior problem in dogs (but is rarely seen in cats). The most common complaints from owners of dogs with separation anxiety are destructiveness, house soiling, escape attempts from the house or yard and/or excessive vocalizations when the dog is left alone. The degree of these behaviors can vary from mild to very destructive to the pet’s own body and surroundings.
When presented with a pet that is having separation anxiety – the questions we, as veterinarians, are first interested in have to do with:
- Daily routine and any changes
- Exercise – what and how much?
- Diet – what and how much?
- Medications & supplements – what, for how long and how much?
- Other pets and social interactions
- Other abnormal behaviors or changes to basic bodily functions
We then do a full physical exam to make sure there are no apparent underlying medical problems that need to be addressed. Primary neurological disease, vision problems, hearing (and ear infections), pain and sometimes other medications can play huge roles in exacerbating behavioral abnormalities. We will often also consider doing baseline metabolic and thyroid function testing to be sure all physical systems are functioning normally, and to have a baseline if we end up considering medication.
Management of separation anxiety (and other anxious behaviors) should always involve behavior modification training that often includes desensitization and counterconditioning. Positive social interaction is often very beneficial for anxieties in general and is in all honesty a form of counterconditioning. In some cases, supplements or pharmacologic interventions may be needed to help bridge training sessions or for long term management. What does not work well is the use of medication in the absence of appropriate training and behavior modification. And let’s be clear and honest – the latter is the hard part, it’s the part that often requires professional one-on-one help and is the part that sometimes takes the longest…but it’s also the most rewarding part. It’s the part that allows you to connect with your pet and really help them become more confident and comfortable.
If your pet is experiencing separation anxiety, below are some resources where you can get guidance on how you can help you pet be more comfortable and confident on their own. We strongly recommend working with your veterinarian – make sure that your pet has no underlying physical health problems, make sure diet and exercise are appropriate for your pet, and get some initial feedback and guidance for resources to help manage your fur-baby at home. But as we just said above – training and behavior modification is KEY to a successful management of an anxious pet…how does one find that extra help? Well, there folks who do an amazing job with behavior issues in our fur-children. Your veterinarian can likely point you to trusted resources and general guidelines on what qualifications to look for can be found here and the ASPCA has very similar guidelines. The Animal Behavior Society has a directory of Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists, Certified Professional Dog Trainers (CPDT) are also well versed in the training aspects of managing behavioral problems and then there are veterinary behaviorists – veterinarians who have years of additional training/research/education in behavior and are board-certified in their field. In the DC area we have two: Dr. Marsha Reich, DVM & Dr. Leslie Sinn, DVM.
Additional online resources: