Does your dog have separation anxiety?

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A dog with pet health insurance waits for his owner to return.

By: Dr. Fiona Caldwell
For Pets Best Insurance

Nobody likes coming home to a mess their dog has created while they were away. Sometimes destructive behavior is due to boredom, but occasionally it goes deeper than that. It is estimated one in six dogs suffers from separation anxiety, a disorder causing dogs to panic when left alone, often vocalizing, destroying areas of escape, such as doors or windows, and house soiling. Some pet insurance companies, like Pets Best Insurance, offer limited benefits for behavioral conditions, like separation anxiety.

Dogs are under great stress with separation anxiety, and can even injure themselves while trying to escape. Recognizing this disorder is the first step to helping your dog overcome this, in addition to protecting your home and belongings.

What is separation anxiety?
Dogs are pack animals; it isn’t surprising being alone can trigger anxiety. True separation anxiety driven behaviors will occur shortly after the owner has left and classically will involve some type of ‘escape attempt,’ or destruction around exits. A severely affected dog may create a large amount of destruction by chewing, clawing or digging, whereas a mildly affected dog may only pant excessively, pace, whine or excessively groom.

House soiling generally occurs shortly after the owner leaves and should be distinguished from house soiling that occurs from being left for long periods of time. Often dogs suffering from separation anxiety are hyperattached to their owner and will follow them around or beg to be held. Many pets with separation anxiety will also have noise phobias as well and become fearful or even destructive during thunderstorms or fireworks on the Fourth of July.

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What causes it?
Separation anxiety can occur anytime, at any age. It tends to start after a stressful event, like a move to a new home, or after a change in the owner’s schedule. Dogs in single person households versus having more than one owner are 2.5 times more likely to suffer from separation anxiety. Sometimes there are no known triggers.

Can I prevent it?
Ideally, preventing separation anxiety begins in puppyhood. Crating can be a wonderful way to create a safe and comfortable routine for your new puppy. Dogs like small ‘den-like’places, and crates can instill a sense of security and assurance. It is important to NEVER use a crate as a source of punishment. Pets that are crated and enjoy their crate are far less likely to have destructive behaviors.

Never leave your dog in a crate for an inhumane period of time. A general rule of thumb for puppies is the maximum amount of time they should spend in a crate should equal their age in months plus one hour. For example, 3 hours for a 2 month old, 5 hours for a 6 month old. Never exceed 8 hours, even in an adult dog.

Can separation anxiety be treated?
Separation anxiety can’t be ‘cured.’ It can be successfully managed, and generally takes behavior modification on your part, and for your pet as well. Occasionally pharmaceutical intervention can be helpful as well. Some pet insurance companies will offer limited coverage for these kinds of medications.

What should I do?
Never punish your dog if you come home to a mess. This will only add to their anxiety and will not prevent them from doing it again. A ‘guilty’ looking dog is likely picking up on the fact that you are angry and is trying to appease you, versus feeling actual remorse.

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Figure out which ‘cues’ your dog perceives that indicate you are leaving, such as picking your phone or keys, packing a lunch, etc. Try doing these cues without leaving, or perform these cues and then reward your dog with a treat. Try doing your departure routine, then leave for just a few minutes and return. Praise good behavior.

Enrich your dog’s environment. Provide interactive toys, like Kongs with the inside pre-filled with canned food and placed in the freezer first.

Crating a dog that has never been crated and has separation anxiety can be tricky, but done right can help in some occasions. Sometimes being confined can ‘fuel the fire’ and make your dog more anxious. Go slowly with introduction to a new crating situation. Feed your dog in the crate, keep his or her toys in it, have it out in the common area where you spend most of your time. Close the door to the crate with the dog in it when you are home with him or her first. Gradually increase the amount of time they stay in it, provide lots of praise and rewards.

Try to downplay your comings and goings. Try to be unemotional when you are leaving, do not coddle or give excessive attention as you are leaving. Try to be aloof when you come home. It can be very hard to resist your dog’s excitement and joy when you have returned, but try to ignore them until the excitement passes, then lavish them with praise.

Spend more time with your pet. Make sure you are allowing them regular exercise. Create a day-to-day routine and try to stick to it.

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When should I try medication and what is available?
If you have worked with your veterinarian with a behavior modification program and haven’t reached your goals, adding medication in the mix may be helpful. Medication is NOT a substitute for behavioral modifying techniques and must be used in conjunction.

Most medication is aimed at reducing anxiety levels, currently clomipramine and fluoxetine are the only FDA-approved drugs for the treatment of separation anxiety in the dog; however, other human anti-anxiety medications have a long history of use for this purpose.

Pet health insurance can cover behavioral treatment at limited amounts, and is generally a good idea to consider regardless of whether your pet has separation anxiety.

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