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Canine separation anxiety during post-pandemic era

Publication
Article
dvm360dvm360 October 2022
Volume 53
Issue 10
Pages: 26
Kansas City

Diagnosis and treatment methods are presented, and common myths are debunked

Dogs spent abundant time with their families during the COVID-19 pandemic, as children and adults attended classes via video chat and worked from home, respectively. However, pets’ fantasy worlds—where their owners were home more indefinitely—came to a halt when everyone returned to in-person activities. According to Steve Dale, CABC, in a lecture delivered at the 2022 Fetch dvm360® Conference in Kansas City, Missouri, humans’ return to life outside the home led to an emergence of canine separation anxiety, as dogs’ routines were turned upside down.1

Andrei / stock.adobe.com

Andrei / stock.adobe.com

Dale began his talk by defining separation anxiety. “Essentially, it is separation from a specific person, isolation distress...and many times it is, frankly, a panic attack. These dogs are panicked. There’s no other gentle way to say it,” he said. Dale further discussed the ins and outs of this condition, providing tips on diagnosing it and offering solutions, as well as debunking certain myths.

Diagnosing separation anxiety

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, some common signs of separation anxiety when dogs are left alone include the following2:

  • Urinating and defecating
  • Barking and howling
  • Chewing, digging, and causing destruction
  • Escaping
  • Pacing
  • Coprophagia

Dale said there isn’t a certain number of signs a dog must have to receive a diagnosis of separation anxiety, as “it depends on the dog.”1 Signs of separation anxiety can also be indicative of another condition. For example, if a dog is barking when they’re home alone, it may indicate that they are bored, or if they are having accidents, it could be because of cognitive dysfunction syndrome, according to Dale. Anxiety can also arise from a dog experiencing chronic pain. This doesn’t mean separation anxiety is mutually exclusive to an alternate condition, but the primary condition must be considered.

An excellent method for veterinary professionals to discover whether a dog is experiencing separation anxiety is by reviewing footage from cameras in clients’ homes that monitor the dog when they are away. “An expert like yourself can look at that video and say, ‘This really isn’t separation anxiety. This is a dog barking at the mailman [or] the individuals walking down the street—that’s not separation anxiety.’ Or you can say, ‘Yes, this dog is clearly anxious,’ ” Dale said.

Dale also advised to be mindful when categorizing the severity of a dog’s separation anxiety. “You can be just as anxious as [someone else] but you may express it very differently. You may scream and yell...[or] you may say nothing and just sit there but be feeling the same anxiety. If that’s the case in [humans], that might that be the case in dogs, too. Dogs assumed to have mild separation anxiety may be feeling just [as] or more anxious than the dog that clearly is expressing anxiety in all sorts of different ways,” he said.

Debunking separation anxiety myths

During his presentation, Dale highlighted some common misconceptions clients have surrounding canine separation anxiety, including the following:

  • "It's my fault."
    • Clients may believe this if they felt they haven’t been enough of a “pack leader,” or if they let the dog sleep with them or spend too much time with them, for instance.
  • "Separation anxiety isn't treatable."
    • These pet owners are often averse to medication or view it as a last resort for separation anxiety.
  • "The dog is spiteful."
    • This is the myth Dale said he hears most from clients, that the dog is displaying the signs of separation anxiety on purpose because of spite.
  • "The dog isn't well trained enough."
    • Separation anxiety isn’t a reflection of how well trained a dog is or of intelligence. Both well-trained and not well-trained dogs can experience this just the same.
  • "Crating the dog will stop the problem."
    • This will likely make it worse, as the dog can be injured while panicking in the crate.
  • "Getting another cat or dog will solve the problem."
    • Although this can work for some, it is not a guaranteed fix, as dogs often experience separation anxiety because humans or
      a specific individual are leaving the house.

Separation anxiety treatment options

Dale outlined some methods that veterinarians can inform clients about to combat canine separation anxiety. He also noted the significance of an individualized approach. “What works for one person in one situation doesn’t necessarily work for another,” he said.

Traditional treatments

Dale shared that there are food options for dogs that contain probiotics that claim to ease anxiety, and because the brain and stomach are connected, this can calm a dog. There are also nutraceuticals available on the market, but it’s important to choose those with demonstrated scientific efficacy. Additionally, there are anxiety wraps for dogs that can offer relief for a variety of anxieties.

Doggy day care

If it is in a client’s budget, they can consider taking their dog to day care several times a week, or they can have a friend, neighbor, or dog walker regularly check on their pup when they are out to break up their day.

Graduated departures

Dale said encouraging independence through graduated departures could also be helpful. He advises to tell clients to first put a dog bed, yoga mat, or blanket in one room and direct the dog to lie there when the client is in the same room. Then the client should gradually go farther away from the dog to separate rooms until their pet becomes accustomed to the feeling of being alone. “It’s like the dog [is] going to college. [But] certainly give the dog something to do while the dog is there, [such as] something safe [for them] to chew on that can occupy them,” he said.

Background noise

Certain background noise can also be soothing to dogs while a pet parent is gone, such as a fan or air conditioner that can provide white noise. There is also music available on streaming platforms specifically for dogs, or they can turn on the radio or television to keep the dogs entertained and at ease. “[This is] important because a lot of these dogs have anxiety to noise, as well. Things are happening outside that, depending on where that client lives, may exasperate the anxiety,” Dale said.

References

  1. Dale S. How to mess with separation distress. Presented at: Fetch dvm360® Conference; August 26-28, 2022; Kansas City, MO.
  2. Separation anxiety. American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Accessed September 14, 2022. https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/ dog-care/common-dog-behavior-issues/separation-anxiety
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