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Why is My Pet Tearing Up the House?

Separation Anxiety and How to Deal with It.

Coping with Destructive Behaviour in Your Pet - Ron Hines DVM PhD 6/2/03

1) What is Separation Anxiety (SA)?

Perfect pets, like perfect people are hard to find. Separation anxiety (SA) is a pet’s exaggerated fear over separation from its owners. It is a modern, industrial age, disease. I see it most often in dogs, parrots mice and cats. Simply said, they are afraid of being left alone.

2) What are the Signs of Separation Anxiety ?

You can diagnose SA by noting its signs and symptoms in your pet. After all, you know your pet better than any veterinarian can. Separation anxiety is not the same as boredom, which can also result in chewing, pawing, digging, and other bad behavior. SA begins as a panic soon as you leave, boredom, after an hour or two.

All puppies show some signs of Separation Anxiety. It’s only natural for an infant of any species. But as time passes, normal puppies and other pets show these signs less and less and become more confident about being alone. It’s worrying about your being away or about their being away from “the pack” which is out of line for “teenage” puppies and other pets.

Signs of SA in pets are: fearfulness (worry, apprehensiveness), clinginess, hyperactivity, barking and yelping (screaming in birds), destroying objects, urinating inappropriately, defecating in the house, vomiting, diarrhea, salivation, depression or aggressiveness when they are about to be left alone or think they are about to be.

Some over-eat; some under-eat. Some twitch their ears, pace, pant, hide or jump and bounce about. Parrots and cats over-groom, resulting in bald areas on their chests. Some pets can be left alone for no longer than a few minutes before they panic and exhibit these behaviours. Sometimes separation anxiety is caused by a change in schedule that requires the pet to be left alone for longer that normal. Unidentified changes in older pets may also cause sudden separation anxiety, which can be mistaken for senility. What your pet is thinking is that it is about to loose its main friend and that you will not be returning. It is preoccupation with this that sets off the cycle.

I have seen SA equally in male and female pets, un-neutered and fixed. Among dogs, dolichocephalic (long nosed) shepherd-like dogs, bred for herding and guarding as well as spaniels and setters more commonly have the condition. I have noticed that dogs with SA tend to be lean or thin and have periodic digestive disturbances. Among cats: Siamese seem over-represented; among birds, Cockatoos, African Grey Parrots and Macaws. Age at onset in dogs is usually 5 months to two years. In parrots it can occur at any age. I would guess that in its severe form, it affects 4-8 % of the pet dog I have seen over the last 40 years and a similar percentage of Parrots. It is much less common in cats.

3) What are the Causes of Separation Anxiety?

Some puppies, kittens and parrots, for reasons we do not entirely understand, retain their normal early fear of being left alone. Perhaps these were puppies that were removed from their parents too young or whose mothers were unavailable. Others come from families of dogs genetically prone to anxiety.

Many, are multi-owner dogs that bounced from one home to another, from shelter to shelter. I am a licensed foster parent and many of the pets I have seen with this problem remind me a great deal of my foster children. Certainly some of these pets were abused; but only a small percentage of abused pets develop SA.

Social risk factors for SA include early maternal rejection by the dame, lack of stimulation, poor maternal health, and neglect as a puppy. The owner’s personality types also play a part in this disease.

In dogs, the remission rate with SA is fairly high – that is, a lot of your pets are going to have good days and bad ones, good periods and bad periods. Some fortunate ones will cure themselves altogether with minimal help from you. Older pets with SA may have difficulty moving to new homes, accepting new pets, babies and new situations in general.

But although we do not yet know the exact cause of separation anxiety, some risk factors are known. Affected pets tend to belong to families that are close-knit. The disorder often develops after a stress such as death or illness in the family, a move, a new baby or pet or changes in family structure.

Dogs and people with SA often have parents and siblings with SA. If one human identical twin has SA, the other almost certainly does too. The same pertains to litters of dogs – although with less certainty. I read two interesting articles (Grachev, 1998, Rauch & Savage 1997) that concluded that many humans with similar problems show abnormalities in a tangle of nerve cells near the front of the brain (orbitofrontalstriatal area).

The brain is an immensely complicated organ and these types of experiments are difficult to conduct and interpret. Some pediatricians feel that these abnormalities might result from bacterial infections. They call this syndrome PANDAS (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuro-psychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infection) – a good reason not to over-vaccinate your pets.

We definitely need more research on this subject – consider this my pitch for generous funding of my alma mater, the N.I.H. Today all that can be said with certainty is that SA results from abnormalities in neural (nerve) circuitry and/or chemical transmitters in the brain’s basal ganglia (probably nor-epinephrine, serotonin and dopamine).

4) What are Some of the Non-Drug Therapies for Separation Anxiety?

These non-drug therapies should always be the first-line approach when possible. Some times it is possible to improve them without medications and sometimes it isn’t.

In some dogs, all that is required is to place the dog in a smaller space, a “crate”, where they can feel secure when you leave. If the dog panics when crated, don’t force it in.

This will make the situation worse. Some people, including me, have problems accepting the crating of dogs for long periods. Crating can be a simple “fix”, but I would try positive reinforcement techniques and medications before I resorted to “crating” my own dog.

Positive reinforcement teaches the dog that it does not have to be fearful and panic when it is left alone and that being alone is not such a bad thing. We do this by rewarding desirable behaviour and ignoring bad behaviour.

Besides positive reinforcement, another term that is thrown around a great deal is “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy”. This has four components:

1) recognizing anxious feelings in your pet,
2) reassurance in anxiety-provoking situations,
3) developing a plan for coping with the situation, and
4) evaluating the success of coping strategies and behavioral therapy.

Here are some practical steps you can take to minimize separation anxiety. All attempt to teach your dog that it does not have to be frightened and panicky when it is left alone and to lessen its dependency:

a) Teach your dogs as many commands as possible. Your pet should be able to “sit” “relax” and “stay” on command while you stroke and reassure him. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to join a group obedience class. Each member of your household should participate in a “take charge” way because it is impossible to have happy, well-adjusted family pet if family members are below it in the “peck order” (social order).

The point of this training is teaching anxious dogs to relax and give it confidence. Do the exercises in various rooms of the house and in the yard. Give out praise effusively and chew treats liberally.

b) Find a room in your house that is not easily destroyed. Place the dog in it with some of his favorite toys and stay with him a while. Then leave and shut the door promptly without fanfare. When you return, a few minutes later, give him a pat and his favorite food treat. Over days, repeat this; but each time stay away a little longer. You may leave a radio or television playing but be careful about electrical cords. (The technical term for this is Graduated Exposure or desensitization)

c) Dogs know when you are thinking of leaving long before you do. Perhaps it is because you put on your shoes, pick up your purse or car keys or put on your dress clothes. If you can determine what the clues are that you give your dog, you can try to desensitize him to these clues by repeating them frequently but not leaving and by giving him a treat and praise when he behaves well. When you have made progress, make your departures quiet and quick. (The technical term for this is Contingency Management or unlearning)

d) Some feel that diet might play a part in SA. There is no harm in offering your pet a diet that one leading manufacturer offers as a “brain food” (Prescription Diet Canine b/d) or a hypoallergenic diet (CNM’s HA or Hill’s z/d).

e) In some pets, you can reduce dependency by spending less time with them for a training period of several weeks or months. That means less eye contact, less verbal praise and less comforting, less commands and less scolding. During these periods the dog should not be allowed to sleep in your bed or bedroom. While doing this, never “reward” unwanted behavior by making a scene, scolding or interacting with the pet. Always be mellow with your pet – mellow people tend to have mellow pets. The purpose of all this is to make the pet more self-reliant. (The technical term for this is Response Prevention)

f) There are mixed thoughts about the benefit of having a companion pet for your pet. Some say this may help the situation and others say it will make the problem worse. I have not personally seen this approach work. It will overcome boredom.

g) It really helps to work with someone who has experience with SA in pets because it is fairly easy to make things worse by being too zealous, too harsh, or too shy with your pet.

Other Strategies

As I mentioned before, make do not make your departures a big production by hugging the pet and cooing over it because your are guilty about leaving. This only makes the problem worse. Try leaving through a back or side door. Departures should be quick and quiet. The Family should ignore the dog 20 minutes before you leave and 20 minutes after you get home.

Dogs need vigorous exercise once or twice a day. A good plan is to take them for a walk or jog an hour or so before you leave for work and then give them 20 minutes or so to calm down before you leave.

3) What are the drugs used to treat Separation Anxiety?

I suggest that drug therapy not be used until you have attempted some of the non-drug therapies listed above. Preliminary research suggests that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s) may provide effective treatment of separation anxiety disorder and other anxiety disorders in pets. Neither tricyclic antidepressants like Elavil nor benzodiazepines such as Valium have been shown to be more effective than placebos in children although some veterinarians do prescribe them.

I have used Haldol (haloperidol) successfully in parrots, cockatoos and macaws to prevent feather plucking, a form of SA in birds. I do not like the drug because it causes loss of coordination (dyskinesia) and loss of mental acuity. One of my daughters was placed on it and these side effects were debilitating.

I will discuss the general approach to psychopharmacology that I use – some animal behavioralists would probably use non-drug therapy longer than I agree to. This is because I am part pharmacist, somewhat impatient, and because I have seen the success these drugs offer. I have had personal pets, zoo animals and my own children on these medications before. The SSRI’s appear effective in treating SA in pets; they are most certainly effective in human children and adults. SSRI’s are all antidepressant and antianxiety medications.

SSRI’s all affect the way our pets think, feel, and act. They affect nerves that are involved in the regulation of mood, appetite, sexuality, sleep, aggression, obsessions, and compulsions. They have remarkably few and mild side effects. Some side effects are: dry mouth, sleepiness, dizziness, fatigue, tremors, and constipation. They occur fairly commonly.

Antidepressant and Antianxiety Medications of the SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) and Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibition Class* ** ***

*Only Clomipramine (Clomacalm) is approved for use in dogs. None are approved for other pets although all have been used.
**Cats are very unique in their metabolism of drugs. I have only used the tricyclic antidepressant, Elavil and the serotonin receptor blocker, cyproheptadine (Periactin) successfully in cats.
***Most of these medicines offer pediatric doses, which can be used to calculate pet doses. Another technique for calculating dose is allometric scaling. As with children one should always start at a dose, which is likely, Too Low (20%) and very slowly increase the dose until it is effective or one is satisfied that it will not work. It can take several months to make a decision.

Brand Name Generic Name Brand Name Generic Name
Anafranil clomipramine Celexa citalopram
BuSpar buspirone Sinequan doxepin
Effexor venlafaxine Tofranil imipramine
Luvox (SSRI) fluvoxamine Wellbutrin bupropion
Paxil (SSRI) paroxetine Zoloft sertraline
Prozac (SSRI) fluoxetine Rimeron mirtazapine
Serzone (SSRI) nefazodone Lexapro escitalopram

When SA is successfully treated, you will notice other changes in your pet. They will usually be less tense, more carefree, enthusiastic, and less depressed. They may get a bit pudgy.

Don’t feel guilty about using these medications under your vet’s guidance. There should be no more stigma attached to them than aspirin - you are just treating a brain hormone imbalance. Try to be content with improvements – not total makeovers.