How can a human health pandemic affect our pets' mental health? Could we be about to see an epidemic of separation anxiety in our dogs?
The last few years have been pretty extraordinary for almost everyone. Covid restrictions have brought about huge changes to our lifestyles, with many people spending much more time at home than is usual. During this time our pets have had to adjust to big changes to their routines.
Additionally, many dogs have been adopted during the pandemic, which means these dogs have grown up with very different routines to the pets who came before them.
While most of us are probably looking forward pretty enthusiastically to life returning to something more like normality, this will bring some big changes for our dogs. In households where someone has always been home for most of the preceding two years, some dogs might find it quite stressful to adjust to the changes to come.
Read on to learn more about separation anxiety in dogs, and how you can help prepare your pet for future modifications to your household routines.
The covid pandemic has caused a huge increase in pet ownership, with more than two million pets being acquired since the start of the outbreak
Dog separation anxiety symptoms
Urinating and Defecating
A common sign of separation anxiety is that a dog will inappropriately urinate or defecate in the house when they are left by themselves. This is very frustrating but it is extremely important not to punish your pet, as this will only worsen their anxiety.
Barking and Howling
Dogs with separation anxiety may bark excessively when left alone. Additionally, they can make other distressed vocalisations such as whining or howling. This can cause serious problems for your neighbours as well as for your dog.
Chewing, Digging and Destruction
Anxious dogs can be very destructive. They may dig up the garden, or destroy their bedding, toys, or other household items. They can do a lot of damage to both themselves and your property, often when trying to escape.
Pacing or other “Stereotypes”
Stereotypic behaviours are repetitive behaviours that may seem to have no purpose. They are a way for the dog to feel more in control of their environment, and can take such forms as pacing the yard or compulsive licking.
This can be a subtle sign but can also provide an early warning that your dog is not coping with being home alone. If you come home to a dog that is wet around the face from excessive drool, consider that this may be an expression of them feeling stressed out.
Behaving in a depressed, subdued or lethargic fashion when you are about to leave can be another manifestation of separation anxiety.
Don’t ignore dog anxiety
If your dog is showing signs of anxiety it is necessary to take steps to help them cope with their situation. It is particularly important not to assume an anxious puppy will grow out of it.
Unmanaged anxiety is very likely to get worse not better. You can make modifications to your pet's environment and routine to help give them a sense of wellbeing and calm in their home. If you are concerned your pet is suffering from anxiety, take the opportunity to discuss this with your vet.
How to treat dog separation anxiety
Training can be used to help dogs to cope with anxiety. Teaching dogs to be calm in response to a cue can really assist them in relaxing instead of escalating their anxious behaviour. For example, the dog is taught to sit, stay, and look at the owner, and then rewarded with quiet attention or a toy or food reward.
Dogs can also be taught to settle on a bed or mat, or in a crate and be rewarded for settling. Training should always be done using positive reinforcement. You can discuss techniques with your vet, or an accredited trainer such as a Delta Dog Trainer.
When you do have to leave your pet, and when you return, say a calm goodbye and hello to them. Do not ignore them or make a big fuss. When they are calm, reward them with positive attention.
Dog anxiety medication
Many dogs with separation anxiety will benefit from medication to help manage their condition, especially if the problem is moderate to severe. These medications help balance the brain chemistry so the dog can face their environment in a calmer fashion.
Anxiolytic medications are often given on a medium to long term basis, but treatment can sometimes be tapered and weaned off, in conjunction with environmental modification and training.
Sometimes short term medications are also used to manage specific acute episodes of stress, or as a temporary measure to allow time for the longer term medications to take effect. Your vet will be able to determine the best types of medication for your dog.
Many of the medications used in canine anxiety management are the same ones used for people, one of the commonest is Prozac. This is not really so surprising, as we are biologically similar to our furry friends.
Environmental changes and enrichment
There are various steps you can take to make your home a comfortable, emotionally secure, and more intellectually stimulating place for your pet to live.
Provision of Crate, or Safe Space
Providing your dog with a safe, private, comfortable space can help them to feel more secure at home. Crate training can help some dogs to manage separation anxiety. The crate should be secure and comfortable with room for the dog to stretch and turn around. Only use a crate if your dog is absolutely comfortable in the space.
Regular exercise can help dogs to cope with anxiety, but you don't need to really try to wear your dog out. See what your dog enjoys, be it regular walks around the neighbourhood, playing with you, or playing fetch.
Feeding a complete and balanced diet is essential to your dog's health. You can also provide a supplement formulated to provide nutrient support for brain chemistry to assist wellbeing, such as Field Day's Cool Calm and Collected.
The way you feed your dog is also relevant as you can provide a lot of environmental enrichment by feeding with puzzle feeders. Some dogs will appreciate a puzzle feeding toy being given to them when you are leaving the house, and this can give them something positive to focus on, rather than your departure.
Dogs will generally appreciate any time you put into playing with an interacting with them. Dogs have strong individual play preferences, some love fetch, some love tug of war, some like to play with soft toys. Incorporating the games your dog enjoys into their day can help improve their wellbeing.
Some dogs will benefit from being left with another family member, or at Doggy Daycare, when you are out of the house.
If your dog is friendly and relaxed in the presence of other dogs they may enjoy trips to catch up with friends with friendly dogs too. Some dogs enjoy dog parks, but not all do, if your dog seems anxious in a dog park situation I would suggest finding another more controlled way for them to socialise.
Often it won't help your anxious dog if you get them another dog as a companion. Separation anxiety is often very specifically linked to one particular (human) family member.
There are a huge range of toys and chews which can provide your dog with intellectual stimulation. Familiar toys can become a bit boring, so it is a good idea to have a number of toys and bring out new ones and put away the old ones on rotation, to keep their interest.
Non Prescription Therapeutic Options
There are a number of therapeutic options available “over the counter” which can be helpful for managing mild anxiety. Additionally these options may help to reduce the likelihood of separation anxiety from developing as your routines change towards the end of lockdown
- Nutritional supplements like Field Day's Cool Calm and Collected can help provide the nutrients dogs need to optimise their brain chemistry. This can be used on a long term, or ongoing basis.
Field Day Cool Calm & Collected
- Milk based Zylkene can be used ongoing or sporadically at stressful times, and has a calming effect.
- Adaptil is a synthetic pheromone and is identical to the pheromone mother dogs release when nursing their young puppies. Adaptil comes in a variety of forms;
- A collar which releases the pheromone for a month. This is particularly useful for dogs who are anxious when out and about.
- A diffuser. The refills last for about one month and diffuse the pheromone over a 70 metre squared area. So you can place the diffuser near the dog's “safe space” to create an even greater sense of calm.
- A spray which can be used sporadically, for example you could spray the area the dog will be staying in, before you depart
- Thundershirts. Some dogs benefit from Thundershirts, which are a special garment designed to provide gentle continuous pressure on the pet, which can help the dog feel calm in a similar way to swaddling a baby.
- Before the lockdown ends, you can try to ease your pet into the changes ahead. For example if you are working from home, try setting them up with toys and comfortable bedding in a different room from where you are working, so they get used to you not being right beside them all the time.
Using a combination of positive reinforcement, providing a secure and safe home space, and environmental enrichment, as well as the use of over the counter therapeutics as required, you can go a long way to helping your dog be happy and calm when we come out of lockdown. Keep an eye on your pet for any problematic behaviour, and if in doubt, chat to your vet.
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