Here is a question I recently received by way of my website, drbarchas.com:
Hi Dr. Barchas,
I adopted a rescue dog about four months ago. She is a year old now and is anxious and destructive when left alone in the house. She demonstrates excessive salivation and has been very destructive. As a result, she is now crated, but is still anxious. We are beginning to work on behavior modification training along with Reconcile [a drug prescribed for separation anxiety]. My question is, do you think that adopting a second dog would reduce her anxiety? Can the anxiety be related to loneliness or boredom and helped by a dog friend? I am very torn because I don’t want to end up with double the trouble, instead of helping the problem. Thanks so much for any input you can offer.
All the best,
The problem Kate describes is frustratingly common in dogs. It is called separation anxiety, and if I had a simple cure for it I would be enjoying a luxurious early retirement. I field more questions about separation anxiety in my practice (and online) than I do about any other canine behavior problem.
Separation anxiety, as the name implies, is a behavioral issue in which dogs display anxiety when not in the presence of their owners. Some dogs display only minor symptoms such as panting, whining, or barking. Others can become destructive to property (the condition famously causes some dogs to tear apart sofas, carpet, and walls) or to themselves (I once treated a dog who suffered severe lacerations and a broken leg after jumping through a second story plate glass window during a separation anxiety-based panic attack).
Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety most often (but not always) are high strung even in the presence of their owners. Although young individuals afflicted with the problem may experience some improvement as they mature, many dogs suffer with separation anxiety for their entire lives.
Behavior modification is the first step owners should take when confronted with the problem. The most basic goal of behavior modification is to attempt to eliminate the ramp-up of anxiety that occurs as the owner prepares to depart. For instance, a dog with separation anxiety might begin to get worked up when he sees his owner grab her keys and put on her jacket.
Therefore, it is recommended that owners of dogs with the condition change their departure routines to remove such cues. Exuberant farewells and greetings also are discouraged. These suggestions merely scratch the surface of behavior modification. For more comprehensive information, visit the page on my website dedicated to the subject.
Behavior modification is a lot of work, and it is a necessary component of any plan to address separation anxiety. Unfortunately, for many dogs it alone is insufficient. Medication is the next step for many. There are two medications labeled for use in separation anxiety. Reconcile (which is called Prozac when people take it) works best for some dogs, and Clomicalm (a different type of antidepressant) works better for others. Many people, like Kate, are also forced to crate their dog when they’re absent, for the protection of the dog and the home.
It’s clear from Kate’s email that she is well informed and diligently taking appropriate steps to address her pet’s separation anxiety. I hope that these steps are ultimately successful. However, she asked a very specific question: Might a second dog help with the situation?
The answer, in my experience, is maybe. I have seen cases of separation anxiety where the companionship of a second dog led to dramatic improvement. I have also seen cases in which it made no difference. And unfortunately, as Kate astutely pointed out with her “double the trouble” comment, I have seen cases where adding a second dog was a complete disaster in which both dogs fed off of each other’s anxiety. There is no way to predict in advance what will happen if a second dog is added to the mix.
My recommendation is not to get a pet for your pet. Kate, there’s nothing wrong with getting a second dog if you want a second dog. But I do not recommend making such a major commitment merely to attempt to address the problems of the dog you already have.
Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)