Soothing Separation: Helping Anxious Dogs to Cope
May 29, 2020 09:30AM
By Julie Peterson
Separation anxiety is a common canine problem, diagnosed in as many as 40 percent of dogs seen by veterinary behavioral specialists. When the dog is left alone, it may serenade the neighbors, soil the house or cause damage. Stories abound of unstuffed couches, dug-up floors, destroyed window coverings and dog injury from chewing out of a crate or trying to escape through windows.
In an article on separation anxiety syndrome (SAS) in the Journal of American Veterinary Medicine, Stefanie Schwartz, DVM, cites several studies that agree on common risk factors for SAS in dogs: history of traumatic separation, inexperience with being alone, excessive greetings and prolonged departures by owners, relocation and changes in routine or family structure.
Symptoms vary in scope and degree, but SAS is painful for both dog and parent. Repeatedly returning home to complaints from neighbors or considerable damage can cause owners to surrender their dogs.
Get the Diagnosis
If a dog is acting out, an assessment is needed to ensure that what seems like SAS isn’t caused by underlying conditions. Boredom, illness or canine cognitive dysfunction could result in actions and symptoms such as pacing or excessive salivating that mimic anxiety. If SAS is diagnosed, owners must understand that dogs aren’t exacting revenge and should never be punished for behavior exhibited when they are terrified, advise veterinarians.
A 2018 study in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior suggests that petting a dog for one minute before leaving may make the dog calmer during separation. Some dogs feel safest when left in a crate covered with a blanket. The human attitude toward separation can be felt by the dog, as well, but some dogs simply need more help coping.
Changing the brain might be the way to go. Calmer Canine is a device that sends targeted, pulsed, electromagnetic field (tPEMF) signals to the dog’s brain. Unlike approaches like medications, supplements and cannabidiol (CBD) that have to be administered repeatedly as needed, “the dog gets two, 15-minute treatments per day for four to six weeks,” says veterinarian Judy Korman, at Assisi Animal Health, in New York City and Santa Fe, New Mexico. A 2019 pilot study of nine dogs that she conducted in cooperation with the North Carolina State University of Veterinary Medicine, which developed the device, showed that the tPEMF signals reduced anxiety and restored calm.
“I’ve tried medication and natural supplements, and have found that what works best for all three of my dogs is plenty of exercise. Long walks, especially in new locations with new smells, are a favorite,” says Kimberly Gauthier, a blogger at Keep the Tail Wagging and Dog Mom Style, in Marysville, Washington.
There is a physiological reason for engaging in walks guided by the dog’s nose. “The more the dog is able to take in scent, the more it triggers the seeking part of the brain, the more enriching life is for the dog and the more it calms them down,” says Mittsy Voiles, a behavior specialist at the Lake Mills Veterinary Clinic, in Wisconsin.
Food and Supplements
Good nutrition allows dogs to be more successful citizens. “If you make the baseline fundamentals good, it gives the dog the ability to think, process its environment and have less anxiety,” says holistic veterinarian Catherine Alinovi, at Healthy Pawsibilities, in Clearwater, Florida. Processed kibble with food coloring is doggie junk food. “Kibble Quandary: A Fresh Look at Pet Food” suggests healthier feeding options.
How a dog is fed can also have an impact. Putting food in puzzle toys facilitates a brain exercise that improves confidence. “Dogs who spend part of their day working out puzzles are really engaging that opportunistic scavenger part of their biology,” says Voiles.
Commonly, pet owners are turning to the hemp plant derivative CBD as a calming aid. For those considering nutraceuticals, herbs and supplements, a holistic veterinarian can make recommendations.
Diffusing calming essential oils may relax some dogs, but a mild scent for humans could supersaturate a dog’s olfactory organ, preventing them from smelling what’s necessary. Learning how to use essential oils safely around pets is critical. But the pacifying scent of natural pheromones that mimic the comfort of nursing are hard to beat; pheromone-based products in sprays, diffusers, wipes and collars can be found in natural-health stores and pet stores. “It’s effective for dogs who need to feel safe or when adjusting to a new environment,” says Voiles.
ThunderShirts, special blankets and Dog TV are tried by many, but no one option works for every dog. “When people try things and don’t get improvement, they should seek a holistic veterinarian who can help figure out what is going on,” says Alinovi.
Julie Peterson writes about wellness and the environment. Reach out at [email protected]