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Canine separation anxiety in the post-pandemic era
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 as 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
Dale began his talk by defining separation anxiety. “Essentially, it is separation from a specific person, it is isolation distress…and many times it is frankly, a panic attack. These dogs are panicked. There's no other kind of gentle way to say it,” he explained.
Dale further discussed the ins and outs of this condition, providing tips on diagnosing the condition and offering solutions as well as debunking certain myths.
Diagnosing separation anxiety
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), some common signs of separation anxiety when dogs are left alone include2:
- Urinating and defecating
- Barking and howling
- Chewing, digging, and destruction
How many signs must a dog have to be diagnosed with separation anxiety? Dale said, “I don’t know we have an answer to that, actually. So yes, it could be 1, it could be 4, 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 home alone it may indicate that it is bored, or if it is 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 that separation anxiety is mutually exclusive to an alternate condition, however, the primary condition must be considered.
An excellent method for veterinary professionals to discover if a dog is suffering from 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 and then the people walking down the street and then the UPS guy, that's not separation anxiety. Or you can say yes, this dog is clearly anxious,” said Dale.
He added to be mindful when categorizing the severity of a dog’s separation anxiety, such as deeming it to be mild. “You can be just as anxious as [someone else] but you may express it very differently. You may scream and yell . . . and you may say nothing and just sit there but may be feeling the same anxiety. If that's the case in people, that might that be the case in dogs too. Dogs assumed to have mild separation anxiety may be feeling just or more anxious than the dog that clearly is expressing anxiety in all sorts of different ways.”
Debunking separation anxiety myths
Dale mentioned in his presentation some common misconceptions clients have surrounding canine separation anxiety. These misconceptions include the following:
- “It’s my fault.”
- Clients may believe this if they haven’t felt they have 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.”
- Dale noted this is the myth he hears most from clients, that the dog is displaying the signs of separation on purpose because it is spiteful.
- “The dog isn’t well trained enough.”
- However, separation anxiety isn’t a reflection of how well-trained a dog is or how smart they are. Both well-trained and not well-trained dogs can suffer from it just the same.
- “Crating the dog will stop the problem."
- In fact, this will likely make it worse because the dog can injure themselves or their teeth while panicking in the crate.
- “Getting another cat or dog will solve the problem.”
- Though this can work for some, it is not a guaranteed fix because often the dog is suffering from separation anxiety because people or a specific person are leaving the house.
Separation anxiety treatment options
Dale outlined some methods that veterinarians can inform clients about to combat canine separation anxiety. He noted the significance of an individualized approach, “And what works for one person in one situation doesn't necessarily work for another,” he said.
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, though it’s important to choose those with demonstrated scientific efficacy. Also, there are anxiety wraps for dogs that can offer relief for a variety of anxieties.
If it is in a client’s budget, they can consider taking their dog to daycare several times a week. Or, they can have a friend, neighbor, or dog walker regularly check in on their pup when they are out to break up their day.
Dale said that encouraging independence through graduated departures could be helpful as well. He advises to tell clients to put a dog bed, yoga mat, or blanket in one room and direct the dog to lay there at first when the client is in the same room. But then, the client should gradually go further and further away from the dog to separate rooms until their pet becomes accustomed with the feeling of being alone.
“It's like the dog is going to college, certainly give the dog something to do while the dog is there, something safe to chew on that can occupy them,” he suggested.
Certain background noise can be soothing to dogs while a pet parent is gone such as a fan or air conditioner that can provide white noise. Also, there is 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.
“I think that's important because a lot of these dogs have anxiety to noise as well. Things are happening outside, that depending on where that client lives, it may exasperate the anxiety,” said Dale.
- Dale S. How to mess with separation distress. Presented at: Fetch dvm360® Conference; August 26-28, 2022; Kansas City, MO.
- 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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