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Behavior Problems Related to Dog Separation Anxiety: What You Need To Know

Separation anxiety is a common problem in dogs. It occurs when they become anxious and distressed when separated from their owners. Separation anxiety is like a panic attack in a person. The best way to treat a fearful anxious brain is the same as with humans: with prescription medications that have been clinically proven in randomized controlled trials to help thousands of dogs with separation anxiety.
Dog with separation anxiety can be treated with a medicated treat from Treat 2 Treat

Dogs are highly social, and most dogs thrive best when they have company. Being alone results in dog separation anxiety and other separation-related behaviors. For example, have you come home to find that your dog has torn something to pieces while you were away, leaving bits of it littered across the floor? We have all seen videos of similar situations, but it is much less amusing when it’s you witnessing the destruction.

Over 23 million households in the U.S. welcomed a new pet into their home during the pandemic, according to ASPCA. Some of these new “pandemic pups” may have never experienced separation from their pet parents. With many of us spending way more time at home, it’s no surprise that our dogs may be having a hard time as we start to leave the house more.

How do I know if my dog has separation anxiety?

If you’re wondering if your dog has separation anxiety, the answer might be easier than you think. Symptoms can vary depending on the dog. These signs generally include:

  • Following (Velcro dog)
  • Pre-departure anxiety
  • Excessive barking,
  • Whining,
  • Howling,
  • Panting,
  • Restlessness/agitation/pacing.,
  • Chewing on objects,
  • Trying to escape from the room.
  • Scratching at doors and windows,
  • Eliminating indoors,
  • Salivating, and
  • Vomiting
  • Shaking, shivering or trembling, and
  • Loss of appetite.

How do I know if my dog's problem is due to separation anxiety?

Get started here using our free dog behavior evaluation tool. Our tool has been used to evaluate thousands of dogs for several different types of behavioral medical conditions, including dog separation anxiety.

What causes dog separation anxiety?

Changes in the home or peoples’ schedules can cause dog separation anxiety.  Examples include: a recent move, spending more time with the dog while on vacation or because of illness, or spending more time with the dog while working at home, and then returning to work. Some dogs have trouble being alone from a very early age and develop separation anxiety despite never going through any major events.  It is common for dogs from shelters and dogs with single adult owners to have some dog separation anxiety. They can be any age when separation anxiety in dogs appears.

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Although it was bad for us, the unusual circumstances of the COVID-19 era has been relatively good for dogs! As working from home became the norm, more people adopted dogs who then enjoyed round-the-clock companionship and more walks than even they knew what to do with.  But, if dogs crave routine, what happens when the routine shifts and owners are no longer around 24/7?

Now that pet parents are returning to work and spending more time outside of the house, the pets are left in a state of fear and anxiousness. The result has been a dramatic increase in the number of dogs with separation anxiety.

It is this fear and anxiousness that leads to the “bad” behaviors described above. If left untreated, the condition tends to get worse.

I think my dog has separation anxiety what do I do?

Get started here with our free behavior evaluation tool, developed by top veterinary behavior specialists, used in hundreds of peer-reviewed academic journal articles, on thousands of dogs in over 300 different species.

From there, we will put together a customized package tailored specifically to your pup!

We may recommend that you treat your dog’s emotional state before we can help them learn to cope better alone. This treatment often involves a long-term medication and sometimes a short-term medication in the beginning. Often the earlier you start medications the more successful treatment will be.

Unfortunately, giving pets their daily medications can be a difficult, and anxiety producing chore itself. But we partner with your vet and pharmacies who can mix the medication into savory chew treats dogs love! Forget about trying to get your fur baby to take a pill! You can treat their separation anxiety with a tasty treat.

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The experience of most veterinarians who specialize in animal behavior and mental health is that over-the-counter home remedies are not as clinically effective as prescription medications.

The best way to treat a fearful anxious brain is with prescription medications that have been clinically proven in randomized controlled trials to help dogs with separation anxiety.

Why prescription medications is used to treat separation anxiety in dogs?

It’s often difficult or even impossible for dogs to learn how to behave differently until we address their underlying anxiety.  The brain chemistry of a dog who responds to every stranger or novel object as a terrifying threat is fundamentally different from a dog who accepts these things in stride.  The same is true for a dog who panics every time his owner leaves – their heart rate soars, they salivate uncontrollably, and their system is flooded with adrenaline.  These are real, physical changes that preclude any kind of learning until we can get them under control.

Can we address this anxiety through training alone?  Theoretically, yes – one of the hallmarks of an effective behavior modification plan is that the dog is always kept “under threshold,” meaning that we never push the dog to the point where he becomes anxious or upset.  But as a practical matter, for many dogs with issues like this, it can be very difficult to find a starting point where the dog is truly relaxed and able to learn.

This is where medication can be incredibly helpful. Used properly, a daily medication can help your anxious dog in three ways.

  1. With medication, you should notice that it takes a bit “more” to cause an anxious or aggressive response than before – essentially, the dog has a longer fuse.

  2. If there is a reaction, it should be less intense.

  3. It should be easier to distract or redirect the dog once the reaction has started.

These are all incredibly helpful changes – for implementing a training plan successfully, and also for the dog’s quality of life.

Which ones are most commonly prescribed for separation anxiety in dogs?

By far the most prescribed, and most effective medication for dog separation anxiety is fluoxetine. Fluoxetine is more commonly known by its human brand name Prozac®. It increases serotonin levels, and is usually given once daily. It can take several weeks to see a meaningful change, although some dogs respond more quickly.

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After a few weeks of fluoxetine, dogs are then ready for specific training techniques designed to lessen, and eliminate, their separation anxiety. At Treat 2 Treat, we provide you with a personalized program tailored for your situation and pup.

In dogs with particularly severe separation anxiety, gabapentin is oftentimes recommended temporarily while the fluoxetine “kicks in”. This is typically over a 90-day period, after which the gabapentin can be discontinued.

Are they safe?

Fortunately, the answer to this question is overwhelmingly YES.  Fluoxetine and gabapentin  have been in widespread use in the veterinary field since the 1990s.  They are very well-tolerated by the vast majority of dogs, even in cases where they are used for many years.

What’s wrong with other medications?

While beyond the scope of this article, here are some other medications commonly given to dogs and why we prefer not to work with them:

Benzodiazepine Derivatives
This category of drugs includes medications such as Valium and Xanax, which are frequently effective for the temporary relief of anxiety and fear as these medications have a relatively quick action. Unfortunately, dogs often build up an immunity to the  compounds used for these treatments making them less suitable for long term usage.

Tricyclic Anti-anxiety Medications
Medications such as Clomicalm and Elavil fall into this category, and are commonly used to treat both anxious and obsessive behavior in canines but may cause troubling side-effects.

How do I get started?

The best way to get started it with our free dog behavior evaluation tool. It was developed by top animal behavior specialists, has been used with thousands of dogs, and has been published in hundreds of articles peer-reviewed veterinary journals.
dog with separation anxiety looking out the window
Treat 2 Treat can help! By getting to know you and your pet better, we can provide customized recommendations tailored to your pet’s specific situation. Our veterinary behavior AI was created by animal behavior health experts at top veterinary medical schools, and has evaluated the behavior of over 60,000 dogs and cats.Click here to get started. Working together, we can help your pet live their best life!

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