Anxiety in dogs – signs to look for and tips to help

Anxiety in dogs – signs to look for and tips to help
We all know dogs can be a great source of comfort to their people. And our presence, in turn, is comforting to them. During a staycation or your children’s summer vacation, you’ve probably noticed that your dog has been delighted to have your attention all day. Of course, it beats waiting to see their people all day alone in an empty house. But what happens to our dogs when we return to work, or the kids go back to school? Will our dogs miss us? It’s possible. And when dogs are separated from the humans to whom they are most attached, some of them may exhibit a stress response called “separation anxiety.”

Separation anxiety describes dogs that are overly attached or dependent on family members. They become extremely anxious and show distress behaviors when separated from their owners.

What would you notice if your dog has this condition? When left on his own, he might start having accidents in the house even though he is housetrained. Another sign is excessive whimpering, whining or barking when he notices you are not in sight. He might drool or pant a lot, or exhibit obsessive behaviors, such as over-grooming and licking excessively. You might come home to find broken window shades or screen doors, which is evidence he was trying to escape, possibly to find you. Or you might find evidence of destructive behavior, such as chewed-up furniture or destroyed pillows. He may do these things to some extent when you are home, but it becomes much worse when he is left alone.

Let’s say that sounds like your dog. You’ve cleaned up the mess, but now what? You can’t stay home all the time, so the next step would be to make an appointment with your veterinarian. Why? How can they help from their exam rooms?

First, your veterinarian will probably take a detailed behavioral history. Who is in the house and when? Are there other pets? Has there been a recent absence in the house? Is the unwanted behavior related to one person leaving, or when the dog is totally alone? Have you moved recently? Is your dog a rescue from a shelter? Remember, dogs can be stressed from other causes, including thunderstorms or fireworks. The answers to these questions will provide useful information to determine if this is truly a case of separation anxiety or something else. And now that smartphones are so common, you could bring in videos of their abnormal behavior.

Your veterinarian will most likely also perform a complete physical exam, possibly with laboratory tests. Why? Some physical ailments can look like separation anxiety. For instance, a drooling, pacing dog may be exhibiting signs of dental disease. A dog wetting in the house could have a bladder infection, so it is important to rule out other conditions.

Let’s say your veterinarian has made the diagnosis of separation anxiety. You now have a name for the problem, but what can you do to stop the behavior? Your veterinarian may refer you to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist for help. Or perhaps the answer lies in changing your own behavior.

  • One technique is minimizing visual cues of your departure from the house. Prolonged goodbyes and hugs at the door may heighten the impending anxiety. Easing in and out of the house without calling a lot of attention to yourself may help.
  • Exercising the dog before you leave so he will likely take a nap in your absence is another idea. Make sure he has a comfortable, quiet place to rest, with a special treat or toy.
  • Leaving a television or music on while you’re gone may help, as well as leaving blankets or old clothing around that contain your scent to help comfort them.

You may have noticed advertisements of calming supplements and pheromone sprays or collars. (A pheromone is a compound released into the environment that affects an animal’s behavior.) How effective are they? Your veterinarian can advise you on which ones are safe and most effective. Never begin treatment without checking with your vet first. They are the experts in what might work best for your pet’s situation.

Sometimes nutrition can play a role in helping dogs adapt to stressful situations and maintaining emotional balance. Your veterinarian may recommend Royal Canin’s Canine Calm, available only by veterinary recommendation. This dry diet contains nutrients such as milk protein and tryptophan, more commonly known as amino acids, which are shown to have calming effects in the brain. It is formulated for dogs under 33 pounds and has other nutrients that support urinary, dental and skin health. Another diet, Royal Canin Canine Comfort Care, is available over the counter in both dry and wet textures. This diet features complete and balanced nutrition with added nutrients that help dogs handle stressful situations. Comfort Care is formulated for dogs over 55 pounds that are 15 months and older with nervous behaviors. Comfort Care dry dog food also has separate formulas designed for small dogs weighing up to 22 pounds, and for medium dogs weighing 23 to 55 pounds. Talk to your veterinarian about which diet might be right for your pet.    

Finally, your veterinarian may feel it is necessary to place your dog on antianxiety drugs. These are usually only prescribed after you have tried other measures without success. Or you may be asked to use the medications along with the other modifications. In any case, follow your veterinarian’s instructions for the best results.

Whatever solution is chosen, managing a dog with separation anxiety takes a lot of patience and love.

  • General well-being
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