Helping your dog stand on its own four legs

Behavior problems in dogs and cats are quite common and continue to be a significant cause of nonmedical-related euthanasia of pets. Most behavior problems are caused by a combination of inherited (brain chemicals) and environmental imbalances. One of the most common and severe behavior disorders is separation anxiety in dogs. The exact cause of SA in dogs is unknown; however, dogs of all ages, genders and breeds have been diagnosed with SA. Overall, one out of every six dogs will develop some degree of SA during their life. Typically, dogs that have suffered from abuse, neglect or other traumatic events are more likely to develop SA.

Dogs with SA have variable degrees of panic and severe anxiety when separated from their special family members or when left alone. Owners will report that the dog engages in destructive behavior, vocalizes and soils in the house when they are left alone, with symptoms usually occurring soon after departure of the owner(s). Many owners observe that the dog becomes increasingly agitated even as they prepare to depart the home. Many dogs with SA will cause severe damage to the home and/or its contents and are at risk for injuring themselves. Regardless of the degree of severity, SA is extremely frustrating and takes a huge toll on both the dog and owners. If symptoms are mild, then owners may not realize that a problem exists. When SA is severe, many owners will rearrange their schedules and sacrifice their own quality of life to ensure that someone is always home in order to prevent their dog from experiencing SA.

Diagnosis of SA is made based on a thorough medical and detailed behavioral history, as well as a thorough physical exam and routine laboratory tests to help rule out any possible underlying medical or metabolic problems. The doctor may even ask a client to use videotape or audio to record the pet when people are away.

Management and treatment of SA requires both medical and non-medical approaches, with the goal of decreasing the dog’s panic and distress and therefore changing its behavior. Depending on the severity of SA, an effective treatment plan will involve training, behavior modification, environmental and social enrichment and medication. Punishment should never be used. Basics include providing for the dog’s social and exercise requirements and teaching the dog how to relax and accept some time without attention/interaction. All family members must display predictable and non-emotional departures and arrivals/greetings. Owners must also encourage alternative and appropriate behaviors and provide a safe and comfortable resting area. Details of management are different for each dog with SA.

For many dogs, anti-anxiety medication or a combination of medications will be necessary to reduce panic and facilitate training and environmental enrichment. Many of the medications used in dogs for SA are the same medications that humans take for anxiety disorders, although the dosages are much different. The need for and dosage of medication(s) should be taken on a case-by-case basis. Many anti-anxiety medications will take weeks to reach an effective level in the patient’s system. It is important to know that medications alone will not properly manage/treat a dog with SA and many owners are surprised and frustrated when there is no improvement immediately after starting a medication. Although frustrating, it is important to remember that effective management/treatment of a dog with SA involves several medical and non-medical approaches listed above.

Separation anxiety is typically a lifelong problem but can be successfully managed or minimized with appropriate treatment methods. Recognition of the problem is a must, and consistency with all treatment approaches is required. There may be relapses when routines are disrupted by vacations, moving to a new home/location and variations in the family schedule (work, school). There can also be seasonal variations that occur with any dog suffering from SA.

Regardless of severity, if your dog has signs that you feel might be due to separation anxiety, please see your veterinarian as soon as possible to properly diagnose and address the problem. Do not separate yourself from your dog’s problems.

Dr. David McCrork is an associate veterinarian at Society Hill Veterinary Hospital. For more information, visit www.societyhillvets.com or call 215-627-5955.