Rachel Lees RVT, KPA CTP, VTS (Behavior)
Every year, many pets are relinquished and sometimes euthanized for a variety of behavioral concerns. Among them are separation related issues. Dogs with separation-related diagnoses make up 10 to 20 percent of the cases referred to veterinary behaviorists.
Cases range from mild–showing minor body language changes during the owner’s departure–to severe–dogs injuring themselves and destroying the home by chewing through drywall and jumping out windows. Regardless of severity, it is important to obtain a diagnosis and begin treatment to not only keep these patients safe from anxiety and self-injury and the family’s home undamaged, but also to keep intact the human-animal bond.
Obtaining a diagnosis from a veterinarian is the first step toward treatment. The patient should be medically worked up and assessed as there may be underlying medical or anxiety-related concerns that will exacerbate this issue. After a medical workup, the veterinary medical team can assist the owner by reviewing the veterinarian’s treatment plan, including safety, prevention, management, and behavioral therapy.
Depending on the diagnosis and severity of the problem, the veterinarian may also prescribe medications to reduce patient stress and anxiety during departures. The veterinary medical team can discuss trialing medications and potential side effects on a case-by-case basis.
Eyes in the Sky: Videotaping Alone Time
With advances in technology, we have a variety of ways to watch pets who are home alone. For a potential separation-related issue, it’s vital to recommend that the client have video and camera accessibility to the pet during departures. Not only can we evaluate the pet’s distress levels during departures, but this can be an important tool for the veterinarian in determining a diagnosis. We may find that the patient is not always distressed during departures and that an outside stimulus is causing the dog to panic. The veterinarian would diagnose and treat this problem very differently.
Lonely No More: Avoiding Alone Time
For severe cases where self-injury and destruction in the home are concerns, the veterinarian may recommend avoiding leaving the pet alone. This is not a long-term fix but can help keep the pet safe during treatment and behavior modification. Owners may have a pet sitter stay at the home during work hours or use boarding facilities or daycares.
Changing the Meaning of Time Alone
Part of behavioral therapy for separation distress is to change the way the patient feels about being alone. A great way to start this process is with high-value food for the patient to enjoy during departures. A lickable item is easy to ingest and easy for a pet to focus on when distressed. Think peanut butter, cream cheese, spray cheese, cheese spread, canned pumpkin, yogurt, mashed potatoes, and canned dog food. Food-enrichment items such as food bowl mazes, Kongs, plates, bowls, and muffin tins can be used to administer these treats.
Another benefit of using food is that we can monitor the patient’s stress level. If a patient is a peanut butter Kong fanatic when the owner is home, but that same patient will not touch the peanut butter during a departure, this tells us the patient is too stressed and anxious to enjoy the food enrichment offered. Relay this information to the veterinarian so the treatment plan can be altered.
Medications can help to reduce the patient’s anxiety, but behavioral therapy is crucial to long-term success. A treatment plan should include the following:
- Shaping relaxed and independent behaviors: The goal is to teach the patient that calm, cool, collected behavior brings reinforcement. Positive reinforcement and clicker training can be helpful in implementing this step.
- Creating a non-stressful and consistent departure routine to reduce overall anxiety: Instruct the owner to start working on short departures with the pet showing limited signs of stress and anxiety. The home will be set up in a consistent, predictable way while food enrichment is offered. “Safety cues” (bandanas on the door, scents, etc.) can be added to communicate to the pet that the owner will be back momentarily.
- Changing the meaning of current departure cues: Departure cues are common indicators that owners will be leaving the home: putting on shoes, picking up keys/purse, or putting on a jacket. Owners should perform these cues during times when departures are not taking place. With repeated exposure, the pet will not always associate these cues with departures. Positive reinforcement can also be added in with the cue to create an even more positive association.
Medications and Supplements
Combining behavior therapy with psychotropic medications and supplements can improve the prognosis for separation anxiety. Primary medications such as fluoxetine (Reconcile) and clomipramine (Clomicalm) are licensed for use for in dogs with separation anxiety.
Other as-needed, event, or triage medications can be used for the departure itself to help reduce panic and stress. Some of these medications include Trazodone, Clonidine, or benzodiazepine(s) and are off-label use. The prescribing veterinarian will select these medications on a case-by-case basis. Pheromones (Adaptil) and supplements such as Zylkene (milk casein), and Anxitane (L-theanine) may also be suggested.
Consider referring severe cases to a veterinary behaviorist to help prevent the problem from becoming worse. For more information about separation anxiety, see or refer clients to the videos on separation anxiety at FearFreeHappyHomes.com.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.