Will Separation Anxiety Strike After Coronavirus?

Having us shelter in place at our homes is a dream come true for dogs.

What happens, though, when people head back to the office?

This is a unique experience so there’s no data to suggest how pets will respond, but I suggest we’ll see a significant uptick in separation distress among the following populations of dogs in particular.

  • Dogs who previously suffered mild to more severe anxiety when separated from their people, potentially even among some dogs who were once treated successfully for this problem.
  • In many places, a record number of dogs have been adopted from shelters/rescues. That’s great news. Especially for individuals who had been re-homed several times, there is data (and anecdotal experiences of shelter professionals) to support the notion that shelter/rescue dogs may be more predisposed to separation distress. What’s more, it’s conceivable some of these dogs will have never been left home alone after being adopted/fostered.
  • Change isn’t easy for many people, and dogs aren’t any different. It’s possible that many dogs who had no previous separation anxiety might be thrown off by the sudden change in routine. Who can explain why one day suddenly everyone in the household disappears?

You can take steps right now to prevent or at least modify the level of separation anxiety that could occur when life returns to whatever normal will look like.

Plan Ahead

While it’s great so many of us are taking more walks with our dogs, I suggest everyone in the family takes some walks without the dog, leaving the pup home alone. If you happen to have a shelter/foster dog who has not yet been left home alone or a dog with previous separation issues, take it slow and only depart, at first, for five or 10 minutes.

Set up a camera or two. There are myriad inexpensive camera systems. Point your primary camera to the door the family most often departs from.

Before you depart, leave out safe treats. Stuff a Kong toy or sterilized hollow bone with dog treats or low-fat, low-salt, xylitol-free peanut butter and place it somewhere out of reach a few minutes before you depart. This gives the dog something to focus on instead of your departure. If you have multiple pets, including cats, you might have to forgo the long-lasting treats or separate the goodies widely—put the cat’s high up—so there aren’t any fights over them.

Ask your dog to sit, and then give the treat as you depart or better yet several minutes before you leave.

You can also offer a meal or treats inside a puzzle toy or scatter kibble or treats around the house for your dog to find. Either way, assuming your dog is food-motivated, if you find the food isn’t touched when you are back home, that’s a significant red flag. If you find pillows destroyed or the front door scratched, it’s clear you have a problem.

Leaving your dog home alone periodically is the right thing to do for your dog because ultimately few of us are home all the time, and life will ultimately return to normal.

If your dog falls under any of the three categories above or fails the separation test, the good news is that there is more you can do.

What to Try

*If your dog is generally anxious, lower that level of anxiety. For starters, consider a pheromone product called Adaptil. This is a copy of the comforting pheromone naturally emitted by a mother dog. Adaptil is available at many pet stores and online as both a diffuser (you plug it into the wall), spray, and a collar.

Another idea for generally anxious dogs is a ThunderShirt, which may come with Thunderease (same as Adaptil). The ThunderShirt itself wraps around the dog (kind of like a vest or shirt) and has a calming effect on many dogs.

*You may simultaneously use Zylkene, a nutraceutical pill (or you can pull the pill apart and sprinkle the powder inside on moist food).

Grandma used to say, “To relax at night, drink a cup of warm milk.” It turns out granny knew best. And what’s good for you is also good for your pup. Zylkene contains bovine-sourced hydrolyzed milk protein, an ingredient that has calming properties (though it doesn’t typically cause any drowsiness).

Zylkene, which is lactose-free and highly concentrated, is available online and via Amazon.com. Though very safe, it’s important you consult your veterinarian before giving it to your dog. Don’t try giving your pet milk, as it can cause stomach upset and will not have the same concentration.

*Calming Care is a probiotic from Purina ProPlan Veterinary Diets; simply sprinkle on the dog’s food. The stomach and the brain are indeed connected. A six-week supply of supplements contains a strain of beneficial bacteria known as BL999 that has shown to help keep dogs calm during stressful situations such as separation. Check with your veterinarian before giving it.

*Background noise. Choose a nature or children’s channel on TV to reduce your dog’s likelihood of hearing loud, angry voices, which could be frightening. Or turn the TV or radio to a station playing classical, light jazz, pop, or other pleasant music. Studies have shown classical music and even reggae can be calming for dogs. Gives entirely new meaning to “Marley and Me.”

*CBD: Anecdotally, CBD (cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive chemical compound from the Cannabis sativa plant) has been shown to relieve anxiety and help some dogs deal with separation distress. However, to date, there’s no science to specifically demonstrate this effect, and recent reports have identified liver-enzyme increases with use, as well as interactions with other medications. And not all CBD products are equal. Contact your veterinarian before trying.

Calming Technology?

I am intrigued and impressed by new technology, such as Calming Canine.

This product can help to deal with generalized anxiety but was specifically developed for separation anxiety.

The Calmer Canine fits like a halo above the dog’s head. The fight or flight center, the amygdala, is the area in the brain responsible for producing fear and emotional responses, which express themselves as signs of anxiety. An anxious brain has hormonal changes and actually becomes inflamed. Calmer Canine’s treatment is called targeted pulsed electromagnetic field (tPEMF) signals. The same technology is effective in treating humans with mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. The signals are invisible, sensation-free, and safer than medications (which, of course, may have adverse reactions). There are no known adverse reactions to the Calmer Canine.

The Calmer Canine helps dogs with a current separation anxiety but may also prevent the problem. Ask your veterinarian about it.

Don’t Wait to Manage Separation Fears

Signs of separation anxiety include (but aren’t limited to) the following:

  • Howling, barking, or whining to excess
  • Indoor “accidents,” though the dog is housetrained
  • Chewing or eating inappropriate items; digging in the carpet or scratching at windows and doors; trying to escape crates.
  • Excessive drooling or panting.

It’s wishful thinking to believe dogs with separation anxiety will figure out that eventually their people return, and that anxiety will ease all by itself. Left untreated, anxiety more often worsens over time. We don’t know exactly what these dogs are thinking. Perhaps they are in the moment believing their people are never returning or can’t tolerate separation from those they love.

With the financial stress many families are feeling, I worry that dogs may be relinquished to shelters for reasons that may previously have been tolerated. Landlords or neighbors may not be as patient regarding excessive barking, potentially even seeking an excuse to see certain tenants depart. Doing what you can to prevent these problems can help keep all your family members together.

Consider hiring a dog walker even before returning to your routine. The walk offers fun independence from you and your family and provides work for dog walkers. Be careful regarding the leash handoff; wash your hands before and after.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Steve Dale, CABC (certified animal behavior consultant), hosts two national pet radio shows and is on WGN Radio, Chicago. He’s a regular contributor/columnist for many publications, including CATSTER, Veterinary Practice News, and the Journal of the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America. He’s appeared on dozens of TV shows, including Oprah, many Animal Planet Programs, and National Geographic Explorer. He has contributed to or authored many pet books and veterinary textbooks such as “The Cat: Clinical Medicine and Management” and co-edited Decoding Your Dog, by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. He speaks at conferences around the world. www.stevedale.tv.