A few posts ago, I wrote a story about one of our boarding dogs, Cody, who was our first experience with severe separation anxiety. After I told Cody’s story, I thought a future post specifically on this condition would be very useful to people who are considering leaving their pet for the first time in the care of others. Having very recently boarded several dogs with separation anxiety issues, I quickly decided the sooner I write this post, the better!
Separation anxiety ranges from a mild to a very serious emotional condition pets exhibit when away from their owners. It happens with both dogs and cats. In fact, one of my yellow labs, Duke, often has anxiety when we leave him and is pictured here after one of his fiascos. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate his separation anxiety as a 3, with the dog, Cody, in my previous post, close to a 10!
Separation anxiety is hard to miss and most owners are well aware that their pets have this problem. However, if your pet is always around people or travels everywhere with you, there are cases when boarding is the only time this behaviour makes itself known. And we end up being the unlucky recipients.
Every pet reacts differently to boarding – some are totally unphased and go about their daily activities as if nothing much has changed. Some are a bit stressed at first – maybe shy with myself and our staff, refusing to eat the first day or so, and barking more then normal. Then you have the severe cases which are of the greatest concern. I’ve attached a few pictures of some destruction caused by anxious dogs at our kennel that we have experienced through the years. The culprits were a diverse mix; a golden retriever, pointer, great dane and labrador retriever (I’ll leave their names anonymous!).
Any type of pet, big or small, can have separation anxiety. We have been surprised on many occasions to find, for example, a 10 lb shih tzu has chewed our door frame or been strong enough to put a small hole in our chain link fencing! We do find, however, that pointers, weimaraners and great danes seem to have the highest degree of stress at our kennel, although we have had our fair share of labrador retrievers that have also been a problem. I often highly recommend a trial stay at our kennel if separation anxiety is suspected. If the stress is major, it is often necessary to call on the owner’s contact person to retrieve the dog from the kennel. It’s better to find out ahead of time if your pet is too anxious for boarding.
The following is a list of some symptoms of separation anxiety from minor to more serious that we have experienced at our kennel.
Minor issues, usually manageable:
-Refusal to eat for a few days (more serious with cats due to the potential of developing fatty liver disease from not eating). (For some tips on encouraging pets to eat, refer to my previous post, “A fussy fido or fluffy”.)
-Spilling food and water.
-Inappropriate urination and defecation (spraying urine, in the case of cats).
-Barking, digging and whining more then usual (may result in hoarseness due to strain). Hissing, spitting and lashing out, in the case of cats.
-Minor destructive behaviour (ie. chewing bed, toys).
-Nervousness or submissive behaviour with kennel staff. Cats tend to try and hide on the bottom of their kennel, behind the litter pan.
Major issues, often unmanageable:
-Fearful and aggressive with kennel staff, with the potential to bite.
-Pacing the run resulting in abrasion to foot pads or rubbing their nose raw on bedding.
-Trying to escape kennel resulting in major kennel destruction (ie. chain link chewed, door frames chewed,
window screens chewed off).
-Major self injury (ie. broken teeth and nails) while trying to escape confined areas.
Some things you can try if your pet has separation anxiety are as follows:
-Exercise your pet as much as possible. A tired pet is more likely to settle once you leave.
-Do not punish your pet!
– Start crate training early on in your pet’s life and they will associate the crate with a pleasant, comfortable place to rest and will accept confinement to a small area. Most pets that have been successfully crate trained do well if they need to be kenneled.
-Try desensitization training, where you leave the pet initially for short lengths of time and gradually increase the duration. When you return, ignore your pet. Leaving a treat for your pet before you leave (such as a kong filled with peanut butter or a bone to chew on) will make him associate your absence with something pleasant.
-Pets with mild anxiety can be treated with natural remedies, such as “Rescue Remedy”, which is a preparation made from flowers. This can be misted in the room where the pet is staying and a few drops can be added to their water or directly into their mouth. The amino acids, Tryptophan and Tyrosine, have been found to have a calming effect on dogs.
-Leave the radio or TV on when your pet is left alone.
-Consider adopting a companion for your pet if your household can commit to caring for a second pet.
-Pheromone products may also be helpful and are available for both dogs and cats. We often use a product called Adaptil, which comes in a diffuser or a spray (they also have a collar the dog can wear). This product mimics a new mother’s natural pheromones.
-Pets with higher anxiety will often settle with vet prescribed anxiety medication. I have had great results with “Clomicalm” (Clomipramine hydrochloride) . It works best if started a few days prior to boarding and continued throughout the duration of their stay with us.
– Consider a “Thunder jacket” – this can be purchased at a pet store and the idea is that the pressure of the sweater mimics the pet being held and provides reassurance and comfort.
-In severe cases of anxiety, the vet may prescribe a benzodiazapine, like Valium. I will not accept a pet for boarding if they are so stressed that they need this type of medication. In my belief, boarding is not an option for your pet if they need to be sedated.
I hope this post is useful to those of you with a pet with separation anxiety. Although I specifically dealt with this type of anxiety, some of these tips may also be useful for pets with anxiety over thunderstorms, car rides, fireworks or vet visits.
Thanks for reading!