Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Home Alone...This is Scary...

Written by Dr. Gloria Ku & Vet Assistant, Danielle

It’s such a lovely day outside…oh look, a squirrel in my backyard!  Oh how I’d love to spend the day lounging with my family…I love my family…hey, where is my family going??  DON’T LEAVE ME!!!!!!!!

4 hours later…

YOU’RE HOME!!!!! Look, I tore up the carpet by the door because I was worried about you.  And I don’t think the people beyond the fence appreciated my singing, but I was hoping you might hear me and want to come back to sing with me!

I’ve never owned a dog with separation anxiety until now. Our past dog, a female Shepard mix, was independent and didn’t mind being home alone.  We now have a male Papillon mix who is terrified whenever we leave the house. Separation anxiety is a behavior that is different for each pet.  Some pets may become destructive and extremely vocal. While others may just lay by the front door and whine a little.  With my past experience and knowledge, my husband and I tried a few things at home in hopes that it would help his separation anxiety problem.

  • Play music.  Studies have shown that pets may feel calmer with classical music.  We have used the audio CDs of “Through A Dog’s Ear” in our veterinary hospital.  Click here to learn more: www.icalmpet.com/about/why-music-for-pets
There’s also a dog channel station on the television designed to keep your companion entertained while you’re away. Click here to learn more: www.dogtv.com/about-dogtv

  • Provide “busy work” toys.  Hollow toys, like Kongs, can provide a safe entertainment for dogs left alone.  There are lots of ideas online for mashing food like carrots and apples with dog treats and then stuffing it into a Kong toy.  Some people will freeze the Kong with the mixture to make it more difficult for their dog so that it will last longer.  And of course, as a reminder, make sure that whatever mixture or treats you offer with the toy, be aware that some pets cannot digest certain ingredients or that some peanut butter has xylitol that is toxic for dogs.  Click here to learn more about what toxins are dangerous to your pets: www.petpoisonhelpline.com/poisons

  • Go for a long walk.  Exercise is not only good for us, it’s good for our pets too.  A nice long walk before your pet goes into a stressful situation can really help ease their mind.  Have a very active dog?  Why not give them a job while on their walk!  Provide your pet with a backpack/saddlebags and have them carry water bottles, poop bags, etc.  Make sure it’s not too heavy for them.  According to television dog trainer, Cesar Millan, “For most dogs, a good rule of thumb is 10 to 12% of their body weight, but you need to take into account your particular pup’s health and energy level. If your dog suffers from any health issue, or you’re uncertain about their ability to carry the weight for any reason, contact your veterinarian for guidance. Many owners also find it beneficial to start out small and increase the challenge as your dog gets more fit.”  Click here to read more from his website about the benefits of having your dog wear a backpack during his or her walk: www.cesarsway.com/dog-training/toys-and-play/give-your-dog-a-job-with-a-backpack

  • Interested in adopting a second dog?  Sometimes a second dog can help the first dog’s anxiety.  However, this is a gamble as you may either get the perfect pair or double-trouble.  (We personally are only a single dog household, so this was not an option for us.  Thankfully, both of our jobs allow us to take Ryker to work with us which means we leave him at home less often.)

  • Hire a dog walker?  Take your pup to daycare?  These are other great options to help with separation anxiety.  As usual, do your research. Contact friends, family, or neighbors and ask them if they have places they trust and recommend.  Contact and visit the facilities.  See how the staff interacts with other pets.

  • Seek professional guidance. We have reached out to our dog trainer as well as our Veterinarian.  After trying to help him on our own, we realized we needed more guidance with this behavior problem.  Our dog trainer will be working with us and has also advised us to speak to Dr. Ku regarding anti-anxiety medication.  Just like with humans, sometimes we need psychological assistance and there are prescriptions that chemically alter our emotions.

We asked Dr. Ku for her advice and what she would recommend for separation anxiety:

"I too have had a dog with extreme separation anxiety, and it can be very difficult for them, once they escalate to a place of high anxiety, to understand the necessity of being alone or confined by doors or fences most often for their own safety.  As with all cases of anxiety, helping to de-escalate the anxiety before it reaches the point of no return is critical. 

The most effective things most people can do to help their dogs are non-pharmacological to start.   Downplaying greetings and good-byes can do a lot to avoid the big emotional swings associated with owners leaving and returning.  These swings can literally escalate the anxiety despite their best intentions.  Always remember that our pets are like sponges for our own emotions.  If we are anxious, worried, and afraid, so are they!  Being calm when you leave and treating it as calmly as when you leave you houseplants, and returning with the same matter of fact behavior, can help your pet realize that comings and goings are NORMAL. 

Releasing pent up energy with regular exercise and release time BEFORE leaving is essential.  If your pet is already frustrated about not having a way to release energy, you can be sure they will find a way to release it without your supervision while you are gone.  They will often make poor choices in these cases, and chewed up rugs, garbage cans, work projects, door jams, carpeting,  etc. are common victims.  A 20 minute walk is usually sufficient for most dogs, but every pet is different.  Some do fine with 15 minutes and others need an hour.  We must own our dog’s needs as our own, and make the time for them, especially if they need help adjusting to a new routine. 

Make your pet’s schedule as predictable as possible for them.  Dogs like routine and are very good at following schedules.  If you can make your time away from them part of their routine, they will accept it much quicker.  Typically the most difficult period for pets with separation anxiety is the first 20-30 minutes you are gone.  If you video taped them, you would probably find that most of the signs you are concerned about (howling, pacing, frantic and destructive behavior) will occur shortly after you leave.  Often after the damage is done, they lay down and go to sleep!  Practice first with short trips (5 minutes, then 10, 15, etc.) and work your way up to the longer absences.  Practice with a routine for leaving (e.g., put on your shoes, turn off lights, give them a treat in a very casual and informative way, and then leave - you really have to leave and not just stand outside).  Do the same thing every time and your pet will start to understand what is happening.  If you get anxious and start petting them and hugging them extra at this moment, their anxiety is starting to ramp up.  A tearful goodbye will almost always be worse for them!

Certainly safe toys that will occupy and distract your pet when you leave are good ideas.  They also provide a “reward” in some ways for tolerating your absence. 😉 They also signal to them that this is one of those times you are leaving, and you will return. 

Trying DAP diffusers, or additives like Stress Stopper or Rescue Remedy, are some more holistic options to help calm you pet in general, but if their anxiety level is very high, these may not be enough initially.  They typically do not hurt, and sometimes, especially in combination with everything else, these will be helpful.

And finally, when things still don’t resolve with all of the above, and particularly if your pet is prone to hurting themselves or destroying property because of their anxiety, we can try mood modifying medication to help reset their anxiety threshold.  This usually means long term medication so there must be a commitment to the regimen.  The medication we have had the most success with is Clomicalm (clomipramine) which takes about 6 weeks to build in their system, and therefore may take that long to reach efficacious levels.   Medication is only effective along with behavior modification training as we just discussed. 

We had a dog for many years that was an abuse case from the City Animal Shelter.  Dillon was a 70 lb. Coonhound and he would urinate, howl, destroy unattached objects, or break through fences or seemingly unbreakable crates if confined.  He once crawled under a 4 inch opening (I have no idea how).  When he was with us he was full of exuberance and joy, but on the videotape, when we left him, he clearly went into a panic.  It was painful to watch his whole being transform into a frenzied anxiety attack, escalating from a whimper, to howling, to escape by any means possible within a 15 minute time span.  It took several months of working with him before we found the right balance of activity, safe space, and how much room that actually was for him.  We did in fact move, in large part, to give him more space.  In his case, we had another dog, a foundling Rottie with a tail, that became his stability.  They were about 6 months apart in age and bonded immediately.  That worked out for them, but to be honest, I have also seen a “companion” dog just end up creating a second set of issues for owners.  I would only advise getting another dog if you truly want that second pet despite its ability to bond with your anxious pet.  It can be a 50/50 proposition most of the time. 

Occasionally, your pet may need medication for situational anxiety only.  This would be for the pet that only is asked to stay alone on rare occasions (e.g. less than once a month).  Or the pet that is afraid of thunderstorm or parties, or fireworks.  These pets have what present as similar anxieties but may or may not require long-term medication.  Your veterinarian can help you assess your pet’s situation and tailor a plan to help alleviate that anxiety with you. 

Anxiety is a real issue for many pets.  Socializing them, helping them to cope with new and changing circumstances, and building confidence is the best way to help them in the long run.  Our instincts tell us to protect them, but the best way to do that is to give them the tools to feel confident enough to take care of themselves, safely, in the safe environment that you are providing. That requires confidence and trust on both parts, and is a learned and acquired skill.  Once you have fed them, given them potty opportunities, walked them (i.e. met their physical needs), they need to feel safe.  If that safety is tied only to your presence, you will have an issue.  Give them the confidence to trust that you will provide them with a safe environment until your return (that also means you have to be sure it is secure and safe for them).  That trust comes from a variety of interactions.  From learning to walk in public on a leash, dog training class, learning to look to you for direction rather than having to develop their own plan when uncertainty arises, etc.  Coddling and hugging our pets is wonderful, but if that is the only way a pet feels secure, they are going to be insecure the rest of the time.  We need to give them the tools to survive some emotional independence as well.  When they are settled emotionally, you will find that bond to be even more special between you."  -Gloria Ku, DVM