Ask a Vet: How Do I Treat My Dog's Separation Anxiety?

 |  Dec 23rd 2011  |   1 Contribution

Dr. Barchas,
My wife and I adopted our dog Theo about 7 months ago from a shelter in Chicago. He is a 2.5-year-old mix (we have been told he is Italian Greyhound/Pit or Italian Greyhound/Boxer) and he has had severe separation anxiety since we have had him. It is manifested through crying, barking, and some destructiveness and chewing.

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Some dogs just pine for their owners all day.

We have crated him while we are gone for fear that he will destroy things in the house. We have tried behavior training, with minimal success. We have used citronella collars and bark collars, which have been successful in addressing his barking but have not really affected his anxiety.

We are at a loss as to what more we can do short of medicating him, though we are seriously considering a medication like Clomicalm. Also, we recently moved to San Francisco from Chicago, and I believe the move has contributed to his separation anxiety. However, this issue is significantly affecting our lives here and we have even considered giving him away.

San Francisco

One part of your story stood out to me:

We have used citronella collars and bark collars, which have been successful in addressing his barking but have not really affected his anxiety.

People whose dogs suffer from separation anxiety should be aware that the key word in the diagnosis is "anxiety," not separation.

Separation anxiety is a common behavioral issue in dogs. It occurs most frequently in high-strung breeds and individuals — in other words, dogs that are prone to anxiety in general). Dogs with the syndrome exhibit signs of anxiety such as whining and barking that are most pronounced in the owner's absence.

Dogs with severe separation anxiety develop destructive habits; they may chew or claw apart furniture, carpet, walls, crates, or even themselves. This can lead to significant property damage or self-injury. I have treated a few dogs dog that jumped through windows during panic attacks. These dogs all suffered multiple lacerations and a few suffered broken bones — and they also destroyed large, expensive windows.

The primary treatments are exercise and behavioral modification. Most dogs with separation anxiety are high-energy individuals, so hearty doses of exercise will sometimes help to alleviate the symptoms.

Behavior modification relies largely on steps to reduce the wind-up anxiety that occurs as you prepare to leave the house, as well as habituating your dog to spending longer periods of time alone. Enrichment activities and distractions during absences (such as offering a Kong toy that has been stuffed with wet food and then frozen) also may help alleviate the symptoms. Read this article I wrote on behavioral modification tactics that may work in separation anxiety.

Unfortunately, separation anxiety is one of the most intractable dog behavior issues, and many owners are forced to resort to bark collars and crating to suppress the symptoms and prevent damage to the house. However, these tactics do not address underlying anxiety, and severely affected dogs will bark despite the collars or destroy multiple crates in succession.

Antidepressants are commonly prescribed, but they should always be used in conjunction with (not as a substitute for) exercise and behavior modification. The most commonly ones are Reconcile (which is called Prozac when people take it) and Clomicalm (also known as clomipramine, a tricyclic antidepressant). These drugs are popular because they are labeled for use in separation anxiety. Other antidepressants that aren't labeled for the syndrome also may be effective.

Brian, giving away your dog won't do anything to treat his anxiety, although I concede that the symptoms might disappear if he were placed with owners who could be with him 24/7. Antidepressants aren't guaranteed to help the problem, but since you have already done so much, I think they are worth trying. Talk to your vet about side effects, and be aware that most antidepressants take six weeks to reach full effect.


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