With humans being home more often in the last year than ever, you may already be starting to stress out about what returning to work in-person could mean for the health of your dog. We get it; your furry friend loves you and has been the luckiest dog ever for the past year in quarantine, but at some point, the fun has to end and the humans have to leave home and resume regular life again.
Separation anxiety in dogs is a real thing, and if your dog already shows signs of anxiety when you are home, you want to be prepared for handling this mental health issue so you can leave the house again without feeling guilty. To help you understand what you can do for your dog’s anxiety, Pawp spoke with Dr. Heather Venkat, DVM, MPH, DACVVPM, a companion animal veterinarian with VIP Puppies who gave a few helpful tips.
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Although it might sound somewhat colloquial, separation anxiety is a real medical issue that many dogs face daily. According to the college of veterinary medicine at the University of Illinois, about 20 to 40% of dogs who are seen by veterinarians suffer from some form of anxiety. However separation anxiety specifically is "characterized by a dog being anxious when they are left alone, even for short periods of time," says Dr. Venkat.
If you’ve ever gotten a rescue dog, you may wonder what your pup experienced before they found their way home to you. Behaviors such as being inconsolable after loud noises, or avoiding things like balls or balloons being tossed in air may all have you wonder about how your dog was treated when they were born. Although, it’s impossible to get these answers, Dr. Venkat assures that rescue dogs are not more prone to separation anxiety than other dogs.
"This is because separation anxiety is linked to and also genetic predisposition, such as what kind of breed of dog you have," she tells Pawp. “Huskies and Border Collies, for example, can be more prone to separation anxiety, but any dog can develop it because dogs bond very easily to their families.
If your dog is a well-behaved dream while you’re around, but every time you come home they’ve ripped apart a new section of the couch, they could be struggling to handle their feelings of isolation when you’re gone. "Signs of separation anxiety in dogs could include escaping confined areas, chewing, scratching, pacing, whining, barking, howling, spinning, or shaking when left alone," explains Dr. Venkat.
The good news is, you don’t have to deal with this behavior forever; there are ways to help your dog feel more secure when left alone. Don’t hesitate to take your dog to the vet if they ever becomes too destructive or becomes a danger to themselves, "such as escaping its crate or yard continuously, which puts it as risk of getting hurt," says Dr. Venkat.
"Separation anxiety is treated with a mix of behavior modification, training, and supplements or sometimes even medications,” says Dr. Venkat.
Dr. Venkat says to make sure you don’t make a big deal whenever you leave or arrive at your home. As tempting as it may be to shower your dog with kisses before you’re going to be gone all day, now’s the time to be strong for your pup’s sake. You don’t want to alert them that something is about to change.
Behavioral training can also be done with the help of interactive, dispensing toys. “These toys help distract the dog from having separation anxiety because they can occupy themselves instead of causing destruction or worrying about when their owner will return home,” says Dr. Venkat. “Anything that can [occupy] a dog’s mind is beneficial. Puzzle feeders, kongs stuffed with pet-safe peanut butter, and bob-a-lots are great toys for lonely dogs,” she says.
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According to the Humane Society, crate training is not some cruel and unusual punishment, but rather caters to your dog’s natural instinct of wanting a safe, comfortable, and secure environment to call their own. Crate training can be beneficial for dogs with separation anxiety as well because they can learn to self-soothe while you’re not there by going into a place they associate with safety. Start by crate training your dog for a few hours at a time while you’re home with them, so they can adapt to it.
There are a few natural supplements and powders you can try to calm your dog down before seeking out a prescription. “Supplements containing probiotics, lemon balm, chamomile, valerian root, passion flower, hemp, L-theanine, and/or L-tryptophan,” can all be helpful, says Dr. Venkat. Supplements like probiotics help improve your dog’s gut health, which is tied to their brain health, says Dr. Venkat. Therefore, the idea is that by improving your dog’s gut health, they’ll become calmer.
“Fluoxetine or clomipramine are very common medications prescribed for a dog with separation anxiety, and work as antidepressants by increasing serotonin levels in their brain, which better balances their mood,” she adds.
Additionally, if the supplements and other calming strategies such as behavior modification or desensitization aren’t working, it’s time to talk to a vet about your anxious dog. Your vet can provide even more helpful behavioral tricks and/or make sure there aren’t any other present medical issues your dog is trying to call attention to.