Question: I live alone with my one-year-old Yorkie, Rupert, and have recently returned to work after an illness. He has always been clingy and is now showing classic signs of separation anxiety. He barks nonstop as soon as I leave and has started scratching the wallpaper, doors and furniture. I don't want to resort to any pharmaceutical preparations if I can help it. Please can you offer some advice?
T.S., via email
Answer: Separation anxiety encompasses a range of separation-related behavior problems that take place when the pet guardian is partially or completely absent. The problem may exist on its own, or it can go hand-in-hand with other anxiety behaviors such as fear of new situations, strangers or loud noises.
As domestic dogs consider their human family as their pack, they can bond excessively to certain family members, and this over-attachment can be a cause of separation anxiety in some dogs. It may make you feel special because your dog loves you more, but for your pet's sake, make sure it's not excessive. Not much has been documented about this condition in cats, but I've had many feline patients who've displayed what appeared to be separation distress behavior too.
Fears can be triggered not just by being left alone, but also because of sudden changes in the home or in the pet's lifestyle. Some pets develop insecurities when a new baby is born or a boyfriend moves in. An owner going back to work after a long period of being at home, or even just starting to go to the gym regularly, can also cause worry to a pet.
Dogs may bark constantly, destroy furniture or objects, urinate or defecate inappropriately, and lick or groom themselves excessively. Cats may show stress by overgrooming and licking themselves raw. Some pets may scratch furniture and show marking behavior by house soiling, while others will hide a lot, or become aggressive or reclusive.
There are no quick fixes and no guarantees when it comes to abnormal animal behavior. Animal behavior is complex, and even the most experienced pet behaviorist can completely cure only some cases.
As a vet, I deal with each pet on an individual basis and then try a combination of medication, management and coping strategies. As phobias and fears can potentially severely impact the health and welfare of a pet, the focus should be on treatment rather than just management.
Only after performing a complete physical exam and carrying out routine blood tests to ensure vital organ function will I start an animal on medication for behavioral issues—and that's only when all other options have failed. Medications such as clomipramine hydrochloride or fluoxetine are sometimes used, but they are unlikely to provide any long-term benefit on their own.
Here are some effective drug-free solutions.
Dealing with a pet who has separation anxiety is not very different from leaving a toddler at home when you go back to work, or dropping your toddler off at day care. One way to deal with the problem is to eliminate your departure cues, a technique advocated by many pet behaviorists.
For example, you could try to pack your bag without your pet noticing, dress in casual clothes and change at work, or distract your pet with a chew toy.
Over time, you may have to pretend you are leaving the house but actually not go anywhere. The aim here is to disassociate the cues from the actual departure. Try not to make coming
home into a big deal either—try to keep it low key.
Also important is increasing your pet's independence and decreasing his hyper-attachment. You'll have to ignore your pet's attention-seeking behavior, such as pawing, leaning, nudging and barking, but attend to him when he's calm and quiet. (Please note: don't ignore your pet, just his attention-seeking behavior.)
Sometimes, avoiding close contact with your pet may be necessary to reduce dependence and clingy behavior. Try not to encourage your pet to come and sit on your lap when he or she wishes to. Instead, you should be the one to initiate contact once in a while. You could spread a towel on your lap as a cue for your pet to sit there, or pat or call your pet to sit by you.
Behavioral training can take time and patience. If you are having trouble with these techniques on your own, it may be worth seeking help from a pet behaviorist.
Increased exercise tends to make pets calmer and decrease anxiety. Make sure Rupert is getting enough exercise and try to play with him more using stimulating toys and activities. Toys infused with calming herbs (see below) can be especially helpful.
Feeding your pet more carbohydrates can be beneficial, as it increases serotonin levels, altering their mood. Try feeding Rupert pasta or rice half an hour after a main protein-rich meal, just before you leave home.
Cooked oats are another good option as they can have a calming effect (try the oaty biscuit recipe on the right). Or you could try Colostrum Calming Complex, a mix of proteins from bovine colostrum that's available in dog dietary supplements and chews. As the name suggests, it can help support calm behavior.
Warm milk may also help as it contains tryptophan, a natural chemical that can promote sleep. Dogs (and cats) tend not to stress when they are sleepy.
Feeding Rupert just before you leave can also help in itself, by distracting him from your departure. When pets with anxiety are observed with a camera, most problems happen within an hour of the owner leaving. So keeping pets occupied with food, or a safe toy or chew, can help prevent them from getting stressed.
Herbs are great for calming anxious pets. Not only are they effective, but they're also unlikely to give your pet a 'hangover' like some drug tranquilizers do, and they're not addictive. Remember, though, that not all animals exhibit the same response to calming herbs, so try using different herbs until you find the one that works for your pet. These herbs are my favorites for calming anxious animals.
• Valerian is excellent for reducing hyper-excitability and hysterical states. It's available in tinctures and capsules, and you can even buy valerian-infused dog toys.
• Chamomile and lavender are both effective calming herbs and potent sedatives. Applying a few drops of lavender essential oil behind your dog's ears may help stop his anxiety-associated barking. Or you can hang cotton scented with lavender in your dog's hiding place.
A combination of flower essences—aspen, mimulus and Bach's Rescue Remedy—can help your pet calm down before you leave. Eight drops of each in an ounce of distilled water can work wonders. You could rub two to four drops between the lips and gums an hour before you leave. I also like using oat flower essence remedy, which can be a powerful antidote to nervous behaviors.
Most pets will benefit from calming sound therapy. If you play a particular kind of music when you are home, or watch a certain TV show, it may be helpful to leave the same music playing or TV channel on when you are not home. In general, classical music or any music with a slow rhythm is preferable.
Applying pressure to key acupoints can be highly beneficial. See my book You Can Heal Your Pet for how to give acupressure to your pet. 'Anxiety wraps' and 'thunder shirts' (available online), which use acupressure, can help too and are definitely worth trying.
Rohini Sathish, DVM, MSC, MRCVS, MHAO, MCIVT
Dr Sathish is an award-winning holistic vet with 22 years of experience. After training in acupuncture, acupressure, energy healing, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), animal communication and herbal medicine, she now actively integrates conventional veterinary treatments with complementary therapies and is co-author of You Can Heal Your Pet (Hay House UK, 2015). You can contact Dr Sathish at her website: www.rohinisholisticvetcare.com