A couple of days ago I happened to glance over someone’s shoulder who was watching YouTube videos and saw a glimpse of a destroyed bedroom, and a dog. The dog looked sad, and to top it all, there was someone laughing in the background. I did not watch further, but this appeared to be a typical case of pet separation anxiety, and the laughter in the background really irritated me. Separation anxiety is far from cute!
Separation anxiety is self-explanatory by its definition. These dogs just don’t want to be left alone, or even be slightly away from the owner, in a different room, or in a cage.
Before we go further, let’s define anxiety, at least from a human standpoint! That’s the best we can do, right? Mind.org says “Anxiety is what we feel when we are worried, tense or afraid – particularly about things that are about to happen, or which we think could happen in the future.”
We don’t exactly know how dogs feel when they are away from their family, but it resembles panic in a human sense. Is she fearful? Is she upset? We just don’t exactly know! All we see are the results of her distress.
Separation anxiety shows up in a variety of ways. Some moderate to severe signs are straightforward: howling, barking, pooping, urinating and destruction of anything the dog can get to. Most owners seek help at this point for the sake of their property, not realizing how distressed their pet may be!
My bigger concern is when separation anxiety subtly shows up in not so destructive ways, like depression, excessive licking and grooming, restlessness, shivering and shaking, circling and pacing. Let’s call them mild and subtle separation anxiety disorders. In one study, it was estimated that 14-29% of all dogs have separation anxiety but only 13% of the owners actually sought professional help.
So, what do we do? We establish a tentative diagnosis! The only way to recognize separation anxiety is to have an internet camera in the room(s) so that you can see how your dog does when you are not there. There are several well-known brands like Nest and Blink. The Nest cameras are a little over $100 and are rechargeable (no need to wire). For budget conscious folks, we can simply call these cameras “security” cameras, and then feel good about protecting our house!
OK, now that we have found out that our dog has separation anxiety, what do we do? Call the vet? Check Amazon for herbal and homeopathic remedies, buy an anxiety vest, get a pheromone diffuser, buy a green tea supplement, call a dog trainer?
It depends. If the anxiety falls in the first category where the signs are screaming at our faces, I say, run to the vet, get your dog some meds so that you can even start with some behavior modification training. Let’s look at many tools that are available to us without a vet (but most vet offices carry some of these products).
Herbs: a quick search of “herbs for separation anxiety” brought up over 2 million pages in Google. However, if you look through them, there are about 5-6 well known herbs that are commonly used. In my opinion after using them quite a bit in moderate to severe cases, they help a little bit, but just a little bit, and may be more appropriate for the mild and subtle separation anxiety cases.
Supplements: Again, there are many supplements, but they center around a few key ingredients like theanine from green teas and extracts from milk. It is highly likely that your vet carries products containing these and other compounds. My experience of using them in moderate to severe anxiety has not been that great except in some rare cases. But most of them carry 4-star reviews on Amazon.
Pheromone diffuser: There are calming pheromone diffusers like Adaptil. Again, I am not hugely impressed by their efficacy in moderate to severe cases.
Drugs: You may have already figured it out, I am heading towards medications and going to sing their praises! I am a holistic vet, which means I am very familiar with many alternative modalities, but I have to say that in good hands, and when used judiciously with great caution and care, the drugs can give those poor dogs a new life.
Make a longer (extended) appointment with your vet because these cases take time. Let them listen to you well, totally trying to understand the whole situation, to feel it in their gut and choose the appropriate medication(s). I usually start at the lowest possible dose and then go up over time. If needed, I mix several groups of medication to keep the need for each class as low as possible.
Goutam Mukherjee, DVM, MS, Ph.D. (Dr. G) has been a veterinarian for more than 30 years. He owns High Falls Holistic Veterinary Care near Geraldine, Alabama. To suggest topics for future discussions, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org