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  • Writer's pictureGabrielle Plascak

Helping Fido Heal: The Role of Medication in Managing Canine Separation Anxiety

Dogs are beloved members of our families, bringing joy, companionship, and boundless love into our lives. However, just like humans, dogs can experience mental health challenges, including separation anxiety. This condition, characterized by distress when separated from human presence, can be challenging for both the dog and their human companions. While training and behavior modification techniques are often the cornerstone of treatment, medication can play a crucial role in helping dogs with separation anxiety to recover. In this article, we'll explore how medication can be beneficial in managing this condition and supporting our furry friends on their journey to emotional wellness.

Understanding Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Before delving into the role of medication, it's essential to understand what separation anxiety in dogs entails. Separation anxiety is more than your dog just being sad when you leave the house; it's a genuine panic response to being separated from their primary companion and in less severe cases (but more common) to just being alone in general. This is very similar to how a human would experience a panic disorder and should be thought of in a similar way. Dogs with separation anxiety may exhibit a range of behaviors, including destructive chewing, excessive barking or howling, pacing, drooling, and even attempts to escape that can lead to destruction or self harm. These behaviors are typically a response to a more physiological response such as increased heart rate, shortness of breath, palpitations, hot flashes, stomach pain, shaking/trembling, nausea, and more. These behaviors in turn, are done involuntarily as a result of trying to escape or stop the physiological responses happening. This can not only be distressing for the dog but also lead to destruction and disruption to the household.

Behavioral Interventions: Behavioral interventions, such as desensitization and counter-conditioning, are often recommended as the first line of treatment for separation anxiety in dogs. These techniques involve gradually exposing the dog to being alone for time periods under their threshold while providing positive reinforcement to create a positive association with being alone. Desensitization tends to be the only way to create lasting change though. It is very difficult to positively associate anything when an animal is in such a state of panic and things like food toys and treats are typically give before departure therefore not correctly correlated to the absence but ending up being an anticipation signal of departure.

Additionally, creating a stimulating environment, using calming aids like pheromone diffusers, and establishing a consistent routine can all be things to try to help alleviate separation anxiety symptoms though great success in this has not been found as single approach solutions.

The Role of Medication: While behavioral interventions are crucial, they may not always be sufficient or the length of time to work through desensitizing without medications may be unrealistic for the owners, especially in cases of severe separation anxiety. This is where medication can play a vital role in the treatment plan. I am not a veterinarian nor do I specifically study medicine, however, I am familiar with some of the medications I see when working closely with students and their vets. Veterinarians may prescribe various medications to help manage separation anxiety in dogs, including:

  1. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs): SSRIs, such as fluoxetine and sertraline, are commonly prescribed to dogs with separation anxiety. These medications work by increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain, which can help regulate mood and reduce anxiety. Fluoxetine is one of two medications in the US approved by the FDA to treat separation anxiety.

  2. Tricyclic Antidepressants (TCAs): TCAs like clomipramine may also be prescribed for dogs with separation anxiety. Similar to SSRIs, TCAs work by altering neurotransmitter levels in the brain to alleviate anxiety symptoms. Clomipramine (clomicalm) is the other of two medications in the US approved by the FDA to treat separation anxiety.

  3. Benzodiazepines and fast release meds: In some cases, short-term use of benzodiazepines or other fast release medications like diazepam, trazodone, or alprazolam may be recommended to provide immediate relief during behavior modification training and are commonly used in combination with a daily medication until the primary medication has a chance to build in the system. These can also be prescribed for emergency situations where the dog might need to be left outside of the training structure and we want to cause the least amount of set back from the unplanned absence. While this approach can have benefits it is not a long term solution and giving a dog medication specifically before leaving can create another pre-departure cue that triggers the dog before even walking out the door.

  4. Nutraceuticals: Some veterinarians may recommend natural supplements such as L-theanine or CBD oil to help calm anxious dogs. While these options may be gentler than prescription medications, their efficacy can vary, and they are not regulated so dosages and ingredient amounts per bottle can vary as well. It's essential to consult with a veterinarian before use.

Benefits of Medication: Though many owners are skeptical of putting their dogs on medication, medication can offer several benefits in the treatment of separation anxiety in dogs:

  • Reduced Anxiety Levels: Medications can help alleviate the intense anxiety and panic associated with separation, allowing dogs to feel more relaxed and comfortable when left alone.

  • Enhanced Response to Behavioral Training: By reducing anxiety levels, medication can facilitate the effectiveness of behavioral interventions, making it easier for dogs to learn new coping strategies.

  • Improved Quality of Life: Dogs with separation anxiety often experience significant distress, which can impact their overall well-being. Medication can help improve their quality of life by reducing anxiety and promoting emotional stability.

Conclusion: While medication should not be viewed as a standalone solution for separation anxiety in dogs, it can be a valuable tool in conjunction with behavioral interventions. In my practice, talking to your vet when starting a separation anxiety program is required and I typically encourage clients to follow the recommendation of their vet in getting started the most efficient and humane way possible. By addressing the underlying anxiety and providing relief from distressing symptoms, medication can support dogs on their journey to recovery and emotional well being. It is important to note that not all medications act the same for every dog and there is a high chance of med trials when going through this type of intensive behavioral modification process. Much collaboration with your vet is needed to find the right combination for your dog! If you suspect that your dog is suffering from separation anxiety, it's essential to consult with a veterinarian to develop a comprehensive treatment plan tailored to your furry friend's specific needs. With patience, understanding, and the right combination of interventions, you can help your beloved companion overcome separation anxiety and thrive.

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