SEPARATION ANXIETY

Does your dog suffer from separation anxiety? Find out more about what causes the issue, as well as helpful hints and tips to keep your pet calm and content when you’re gone.

 

Separation anxiety is one of the most difficult behaviour problems to deal with, as successful modification relies on the owner being present at all times during a very long process. It maybe the most difficult but it is also the most important problem to solve, as it is the most common reason for dogs being rehomed or put into shelters.

Much like humans, dogs have a need to form social attachments. Most of us learn to cope with a person’s absence; unfortunately, some dogs just can’t cope and become anxious when left alone and exhibit some or all of the classic signs of anxiety, including:

  • Excessive vocalisation (barking)
  • Whining and crying
  • Panting
  • Pacing and restlessness
  • Drooling
  • Vomiting
  • Chewing
  • Destroying doors and windows
  • Eating through walls

Separation anxiety has a number of causes. It is believed that an early history of abandonment and/or genetics can contribute to what can quickly develop into deeply rooted problems which prove difficult to change.

Before a plan is put into place, it is important to establish that it is separation anxiety that your dog is suffering and not a dog trying to relieve boredom when left alone.

If we look at different breeds, their personality traits and the original purpose of their breeding, we can determine the form and amount of exercise they need. Setting up a video camera to watch your dog while you are out will provide a more accurate picture.

Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety can cause major destruction when left alone. It is often at windows and doors or places and objects that belong to the owner, for example the sofa or shoes. Anxious dogs chew these things because chewing releases pleasurable endorphins, bringing about a feeling of calm.

It can be very annoying to arrive home to destruction, but it is important to try and avoid using physical or emotional punishment as these are ineffective and can exacerbate the dog’s anxiety issues.

MODIFICATION OF SEPARATION ANXIETY

Firstly we need to remember anxious dogs require appropriate exercise in order to relieve stress. One hour’s exercise a day can reduce a dog’s anxiety, and is particularly effective if done before your departure.

As well as good daily exercise, mental stimulation such as learning new cues centred on impulse control – for example, sit, stay, leaving a treat until told or having to work out how to find the treat – can also prove effective. This helps activate the learning part of the brain which in turn deactivates the emotional centre of the brain responsible for the anxiety.

  • It is easier for your dog to cope with your departure if you make less fuss when you leave and return.
  • Leaving lights and TV or radio on so it is a similar environment to when you are in.
  • Desensitisation to departure triggers, eg. having your keys somewhere different and where you put your coat on. We all have routine that we probably don’t realise; dogs are very sensitive to this and can pick up we are about to leave.
  • Put coat on and leave but return straight away, no fuss made on exit or return. Keep doing it at different times of the day; this allows your dog to see these triggers in a different way. The length of time you leave can slowly increase if the dog seems comfortable when you return. This is a long process but really helps your dog’s anxiety.
  • Constant repetition going at a pace your dog is comfortable with is key.
  • You could introduce a new toy, eg. a kong filled with tasty safe treats. Introduce the toy while you are there until the dog has a positive emotion around the toy before leaving it with them. They won’t be interested in it if they are extremely anxious. Once they are feeling happy with their toy, then it can be helpful to give it to them minutes before you leave to keep them focused on something other than you as you leave. This is probably best to do later in the desensitisation process as they won’t be interested when extremely anxious.

Treatment for separation anxiety can be highly effective if carried out diligently. In time, an anxious dog can become a calm, content dog.

NOISE PHOBIAS

Noise phobias are common in cats and even more common in dogs. These can be triggered by fireworks, thunder or the sound of gunshots. A lot of distress can be avoided or at least reduced if we think ahead and begin the desensitisation process before the event.

Some dogs are so badly affected by noise phobias that they are unable to function during and after a firework display or thunderstorm. Many noise phobic dogs adopt self-management strategies in order to cope.

These can include trying to escape; digging at carpets and doors, hiding in a dark den-like space and/or pacing the floors.

These triggers can also cause excessive panting, dilation of the pupils, an elevated heart rate, loss of appetite, whimpering, trembling, drooling, barking, urinating and defecating.

Unfortunately, just one noisy celebration can turn a dog into a quivering wreck.

Fireworks are easier to deal with as we can predict and prepare in advance; however, dogs will know a storm is coming well before we do.

Conditioning a dog to feel differently about the sound of fireworks can be achieved by gradually exposing them to audio recordings of fireworks at a low volume.

If the dog appears relaxed, play its favourite game or feed it its favourite treat. Allow the dog to play and relax in the presence of the sound for ten minutes, taking a break of five minutes in order to prevent the dog becoming bored, and repeat the process. This time, slowly increase the volume. If the dog shows any signs of stress, go back to low-level volume.

The objective of noise desensitisation is to gradually expose the dog to increasingly louder sounds over a period of time, with progress determined by the dog’s reaction. Going too fast could serve to make the dog more frightened.

Some dogs will respond to the above therapies, but will panic at the real thing. For these dogs, we may need to manage the situation instead, eg. provide a safe bolt hole for the dog, or play the radio to mask some of the sound.

The owner should stay present and be there to offer reassurance. This won’t reinforce the fear; it will help the dog as long as the owner remains calm.

An increase in the amount of physical and mental exertion on days where the fear response is expected to occur, eg. Bonfire Night or New Year’s Eve, can help to tire and relax the dog physically and mentally. This also produces serotonin, which can act as a natural sedative.

OTHER HELPFUL SUGGESTIONS

‘SOUND SCARY’ CD

A behavioural therapy pack for dogs with sound phobias includes sounds of fireworks, thunder, rain, hail and gunshots.

PHEROMONES (DOGS)

Dog-appeasing pheremone. DAP is a naturally occurring pheromone which was initially extracted from lactating bitches. DAP has been shown to support both puppies and adult dogs during stressful situations. DAP invokes a calm and reassured mood.

DAP comes in spray, collar, plug-in or tablet form. The tablets need to be given two hours before the event. The plug-in should be used 24 hours before, and will last up to four weeks.

FELIWAY (CATS)

When a cat feels happy and relaxed in their environment, they will rub their faces against objects and furniture. When they do this, they leave a facial pheromone which tells your cat that the area is familiar and safe. Feliway is a synthetic copy of this pheromone, and is scientifically proven to help prevent or reduce stress-related behaviours.

Feliway comes in plug-in diffuser or spray form. The diffuser should be plugged in two to three days before the stressful event, and will last up to four weeks.

ZYLKENE

Zylkene is a natural product derived from cows’ milk, clinically proven to help both cats and dogs manage stress and facilitate adaptation to change. This needs to be started at least two days before the event.

DIAZAPAM / XANAX

Both are available from your vet following a consultation.

Remember, every dog should be treated as an individual, as they all react differently.

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