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Pima Medical Institute’s San Antonio Veterinary Programs Director Weighs in on Issue of Pet Separation Anxiety

Posted: October 27, 2021 by Thomas Easley, DVM
Pima Medical Student holds small cat in lab classroom.
Separation anxiety is a hot topic of discussion among both trainers and veterinary behaviorists.

More and more people are headed back to the work, whether fulltime or in a hybrid environment. That change means adjustments for many families. For those folks who gained a four-legged member of the family during the pandemic, the adjustment might be even more difficult.  After nearly two years of constant attention, pets are going to have to adjust to much more time alone.

Pima Medical Institute’s Veterinary Programs Director, Dr. Thomas Easley, DVM explains separation anxiety and how folks can help prepare their pets.

Separation-related disorders are characterized by physiologic and emotional distress occurring only when the patient anticipates or experiences an actual or virtual (e.g., person present but not accessible) absence from a person with whom the pet is socially bonded.

Separation-related disorders are well recognized in dogs, but they are less understood in cats because of a lack of representation in the literature. Prevalence in dogs presented to a behavior specialist ranges from 14% to 50% compared with 19% in cats. These disorders are probably underreported in cats and rarely do we hear about this condition in exotic animal pets.

close up of two dogs sitting together Pets, just like humans, can experience anxiety.
Symptoms of a separation-related disorder can include destructive acts, such as destroying household objects, chewing furniture and frantic scratching at door frames and window sills.

Like us, animals can develop anxiety. Victims of cruelty, abuse or neglect, may be especially prone to anxiety. But, anxiety can occur in animals from any background.

Separation anxiety is most commonly seen in pets. Separation anxiety is triggered when dogs or cats become upset because of separation from their guardians, or the people they’re attached to. Escape attempts by dogs with separation anxiety are often extreme and can result in self-injury and household destruction, especially around exit points like windows and doors.

There is no conclusive evidence showing exactly why pets develop anxiety. However, because far more pets who have been adopted from shelters have this behavior problem than those kept by a single family since puppyhood, it is believed that the loss of an important person or group of people in a dog’s life can lead to separation anxiety. Other less dramatic changes can also trigger the disorder such as a change in schedule, in residence or in household membership.

One of the most common complaints of pet parents is that their dogs are disruptive or destructive when left alone or when they are attempting to leave. Their dogs might:
  • Urinate or defecate
  • Bark or Howl
  • Chew/destroy things
  • Dig
  • Try to escape
  • Pace
  • Attempt to prevent you from leaving
Although these problems often indicate that a dog needs to be taught polite house manners, they can also be symptoms of distress. When a dog’s problems are accompanied by other distress behaviors, such as drooling and showing anxiety or depression when his pet parents prepare to leave the house, it is likely evidence that the dog has separation anxiety.

In cats, signs like hiding, not eating, social withdrawal, panting, hypervigilance, dilated pupils, aggression and twitching tails or ears can indicate stress and anxiety.

Since a pet can’t call their therapist when they need a lift, it is up to pet parents to help their furry friends when dealing with pet anxiety.

First things first, you want to rule out any medical conditions. Some dogs’ house soiling is caused by incontinence. A number of medical issues can cause urinary incontinence in dogs. Before attempting behavior modification for separation anxiety, see your veterinarian to rule out medical issues.

Also, be mindful of any medications your pet may be on. There are several medications that can cause frequent urination and house soiling. If your pet takes any medications, please contact their veterinarian to find out whether their medications might contribute to house-soiling or other problems.

You’ll also want to rule out any behavioral problems such as submissive or excitement urination, urine marking, juvenile destruction, boredom and excessive barking, howling or vocalization due to environmental factors.

Once separation anxiety has been definitively diagnosed, there are several options to reduce or completely eliminate the symptoms.

Step 1: Educate
Owners may have preconceived ideas of the cause of their pet’s disorder. The owner should understand that his or her pet is not acting this way out of spite or anger; that the owner didn’t cause the behavior by loving the pet too much, spoiling it or not being dominant; and that the pet is not bored and getting another pet will not help.

Step 2: Avoid and Manage Distress Immediately
As quickly as possible, put into place strategies and treatments to decrease or ameliorate the distress. This will ease owner stress and improve the pet’s quality of life while long-term treatments are instituted.

Avoid departures in the initial stages of treatment through use of daycare, boarding, house sitters, or bringing the pet along when the owner departs. Confinement can prevent destruction but also can increase anxiety and is generally avoided because of the comorbidity with confinement anxiety. If crated, the pet should not wear a collar because of strangulation risk with escape attempts.

Block off areas most likely to be damaged and clean soiled areas of the residence with a bacterial/enzymatic cleaner, like Anti-Icky-Poo (MisterMax Quality Products) or other cleaners such as Urine Off or Zero Odor. Play the radio, white noise, or music to prevent the pet from retriggering to external stimuli.

Instruct the owners to avoid punishment, such as yelling, hitting and shock collars. These types of treatments are contraindicated because they can increase anxiety and make the course of treatment longer. Be sure to remind clients that their pet is suffering from an emotional disorder and no amount of punishment will fix it.

Pair owner departures with positive things by setting up food-searching games and food toys before the first signs of distress. Adjust the pet’s feeding schedule to increase the likelihood of eating when the owner is gone, and use enticing food. Recommend that the owner keep departures and returns low-key. A regular and predictable routine should be provided.

Consider medication. Medications can directly decrease anxiety and panic. Situational medications that take effect within 1 to 2 hours of administration can be essential in the treatment of separation anxiety and should be considered at the first appointment. Ideally, the medication would take effect before the patient shows clinical signs.

Step 3: Institute Behavior Modification So the Pet Can Learn to Stay Calm for Departures

Proper implementation of behavior modification maximizes the likelihood of a long-term positive outcome. Behavioral treatments increase the probability that medication doses can be reduced over time, if that is a goal of treatment, and decrease the likelihood of relapse. Ideally, a veterinary behavior technician within the practice would conduct behavior modification sessions in clear communication with the veterinarian so the plan and medications can be adjusted efficiently. All treatments should focus on conditioning the pet to feel calm and happy during departures by using things the pet likes.

Independence and relaxation exercises are a cornerstone of treatment. Examples include food-searching games at an increasing distance from the owner, relaxation exercises and rewarding calm behavior. Treatment can be made simple in some cases by using food toys and remote treat-dispensing devices.

Structured interactions between the pet and the owner through positive reinforcement (eg, cueing the pet to sit before the pet receives attention) can promote consistency and predictability in the pet’s life. Adequate exercise and enrichment should be given to meet the pet’s general needs.

Additional behavioral modification includes uncoupling departure cues and desensitization and counterconditioning to departures. Dogs can be taught to be comfortable with confinement if that is a goal of the owner or helps the dog feel safe.

As a warning, if pets are pushed too fast through these protocols, these methods can backfire and actually sensitize the pet to departures, making the patient worse. If you do not feel comfortable enacting these treatments and do not have a behavior technician on whom to rely, refer your patient to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. If such a specialist is not available in your area, try the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (avsab.org) to find someone qualified.

Step 4: If Indicated, Prescribe Longer-Acting Pharmaceuticals

Longer-acting pharmaceuticals may be indicated if owners have a difficult time predicting departures (making situational medications difficult to implement) or if situational medications are insufficient.

 “What’s going to happen to my dog when I go back to the office?”

It’s a valid question: How will pets react when their owners leave again and aren’t constantly at home? Will pets be more prone to separation anxiety than they were before the pandemic?

Separation anxiety is actually a hot topic of discussion among both trainers and veterinary behaviorists. We are concerned. The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented situation. Spending 24/7 for months on end with a pet has created a new norm that for some is coming to an abrupt end as owners return to work. It is naive to assume that a change like that will go smoothly for everyone. With that in mind, it would make sense to be as proactive as possible to minimize problems before they happen. We know it is a common and under-diagnosed problem.

For more information about Pima Medical Institute or the San Antonio campus go to pmi.edu.
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