Pandemic Pups: Approach to Separation Anxiety

June 22, 2022

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By: Dr. Emily Dae Andersen, DVM, CVA, CVFT

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed time for the crafty alliterative “pandemic puppies” to develop into adult dogs that suffer from behavioral shortcomings and pathology. In particular, separation anxiety abounds in many dogs adopted during the pandemic, something that can be exceptionally impactful on owner quality of life. While separation anxiety can be difficult to manage, you do not have to be a board-certified veterinary behaviorist to be helpful. Simple tips, information, and planning can provide great improvement in symptoms and management.

EMPLOY A CAMERA

A plethora of video monitoring options of pets at home exist with smartphones and other technologies. For parents of dogs with suspected separation anxiety, the vital first step is to ask that they set up a monitoring system that will aid both in confirmation of the issue and management of treatment.

SET DOGS UP FOR SUCCESS

Step two is to request that owners create a haven for their dogs while they are away. They should ensure their dog’s space is comfortable, safe, and away from anything they might destroy. Pheromone sprays or diffusers, calming music, or dog television may be added to enhance this tranquil ambiance. Pet parents should also be advised to pre-test safe and long-lasting food puzzles and toys. These should be kept away from their dogs until just before they leave so that alone time transitions into an exciting and fun experience. Also, ask pet parents to exercise their dogs before any alone time.

MINIMIZE DEPARTURES AND RETURNS

Before owners even leave the house, separation anxiety can start to rear its ugly head as dogs become stressed over familiar “leaving” cues such as grabbing car keys or putting on shoes. Advise pet parents to slowly desensitize and counter condition dogs to these stressors individually with positive reinforcement training.

On the flip side, dogs experiencing separation anxiety often experience a frantic level of joy upon a pet parent’s return home. Instruct pet parents to minimize their returns by ignoring the over-enthusiastic pet and then calmly saying hello to their dogs once they have settled. In this relaxed way, they can normalize leaving and returning and communicate to their dogs that they do not have to panic on their return. The dogs can assume they will always return home and it does not have to be something to celebrate extravagantly.

Separation anxiety sufferers are also often “Velcro® dogs” during the day, never leaving their owner’s side. Schedule time for confidence-building exercises and training during the day for dogs to learn how to “go to place,” such as a dog bed, on command. This reinforces self-confidence and separation in a fun and controlled fashion.

START SLOWLY

Once the above groundwork has been set, leaving the house can begin. As with any desensitization and counterconditioning training, slow and steady is the key. Departures may be no more than 30 seconds to start. Advise pet parents during initial training to watch their dog camera closely and stay nearby (perhaps in a car parked just down the street), so that initial signs of doggie distress can be emergently mitigated by prompt return.

To facilitate success and minimize anxiety, utilizing daycare and dog walkers may be necessary as owners emergently need to leave for long periods of time for work or other needs.

MEDICATIONS AND SUPPLEMENTS

Behavioral pharmaceuticals are not aimed at curing separation anxiety, but rather at helping reduce baseline anxiety so that behavioral modification (as discussed above) can be most effective. Daily medication in the form of SSRIs or other behavioral modifying medications are sometimes warranted for dogs with concurrent pathologies in addition to separation anxiety. Separation anxiety may more commonly warrant the use of fast-acting, as-needed situational medications to help facilitate treatment. Behavioral supplements can also be helpful in a multi-modal treatment approach. It is helpful to have trusted supplements such as Composure Pro to recommend, as frustrated clients will be apt to purchase over-the-counter offerings without veterinary guidance.

SET REALISTIC TREATMENT AND MANAGEMENT GOALS

It is important to communicate forthright that client commitment will be necessary for the best outcomes in addressing separation anxiety and that change should not be expected overnight. Remember this is an anxiety and remind your clients of this as well so they can employ patience and compassion for their stressed pups. With patience and close communication, positive outcomes can be expected for our beloved pandemic pups.

Dr. Emily Dae Andersen currently runs an integrative small animal house call practice and works as a high quality/high volume spay/neuter surgeon. She has also completed advanced training in traditional Chinese veterinary medicine, including acupuncture, herbal medicine, food therapy, and tui-na. Dr. Andersen is passionate about access to veterinary care, both stateside and abroad. Dr. Andersen splits her time between Connecticut and Vermont where she shares her life with a menagerie of beloved animals.

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