Monday, November 11, 2013

What is canine separation anxiety and how do we treat it?

Dr Diane van Rooy is conducting an important study on canine separation anxiety (this is her with her dog Toby).
Does your dog fret when you leave the house? Do you dread coming home to find the stuffing removed from your couch? Separation anxiety is a common challenge faced by pet owners, dogs and of course veterinarians who are often consulted on the matter.

So I was excited to hear veterinary behaviourist Diane van Rooy address this topic last week at the inaugural Working Dog Alliance Australian Working Dog Conference. She agreed to chat about her research with SAT.

Tell us a bit about yourself - what do you do?

I am a veterinarian and veterinary behaviourist. After 16 years of small animal practice in Sunbury, Victoria, I needed a change. I commenced my research with University of Sydney three years ago. Being able to do my PhD part-time and remotely allows my study to fit in with family life - two teenagers, a husband, three chickens, two cats and my dog Toby.

You're involved in a major study on separation anxiety. What is separation anxiety and how many dogs does it affect?

Dogs affected by separation anxiety show signs of distress when they are left alone or are separated from a particular family member. That family member is usually their owner but may also be another dog. Surveys have estimated that separation anxiety affects around 15-20% of dogs, although I am sure that many dogs are not being diagnosed. As well as the impact on their welfare,  affected dogs are also more at risk of being relinquished to shelters or euthanased.

What are the clinical signs of separation anxiety?

The most common signs are vocalization (barking, howling, whining), destruction (often around doors or windows), house soiling, pacing, escape attempts and self-trauma. Some dogs also show more subtle signs such as hypervigilence and anorexia.

What are the underlying causes?

We still don’t know the underlying causes. It does often run in families, so we suspect that genes are predisposing certain dogs to the disorder. Anecdotally, onset often follows a major change in routine. For example, an owner returning to work after maternity or sick leave, or the dog being left at boarding kennels. It can occur in dogs (or cats) of any breed. Dogs with separation anxiety are also more likely to have another type of anxiety disorder such as thunderstorm or fireworks phobia.

What made you interested in this topic?

When I graduated, I felt very ill equipped to handle most of the behaviour questions I was asked during consults. Veterinary students today are luckily given much more information. I became more and more interested in behaviour and did some further study, obtaining my membership in Veterinary Behaviour. When I needed a change in career, I came across this opportunity and couldn’t pass it up. What I didn’t realise at the time was that my dog would also develop the disorder, giving me even more motivation.

You mentioned in your talk that separation anxiety tends to be more common in older dogs. Why do you think that is?

I think that, as dogs get older, they become more reliant on routine. Some of these affected dogs probably also have canine cognitive dysfunction (Alzheimer’s in dogs). If they are losing their hearing or eyesight, they may not be as aware where their owners are, contributing to their anxiety. It would be wonderful to know exactly what is going on.

What aspects of separation anxiety are you looking at in your research?

My research is looking mainly at the contribution of genes in the development of separation anxiety. I am comparing the DNA of affected dogs and non-affected dogs, looking for any significant differences between them.

While collecting information about the dog’s behaviour, I am also getting information about the different triggers for anxiety. The more I learn, the more questions I have.

If we identify genes associated with separation anxiety, how will this help dogs?

By knowing what genes are involved, my research can potentially lead to more specific medications being developed. An early detection test could mean that at-risk dogs are managed from an early age and never develop the disorder. Most importantly, increasing our knowledge can help us to provide better advice to owners and hopefully improve the quality of life of affected dogs.

Skye the golden retriever. 
How can people help you with your study?

We are starting by looking at Labradors and golden retrievers (only because they are both popular breeds and we need as many as possible, and previous behaviour research has used these breeds). Owners can email or phone me or go to my webpage. Owners complete a behaviour questionnaire. We then collect a DNA sample from their dog using a saliva swab. There are no out-of-pocket expenses. I have been overwhelmed by how keen all of my participants have been to help.

What can veterinarians in practice do to help owners and dogs coping with separation anxiety?

Give owners hope. Separation anxiety can be treated and most dogs do respond to a combination of behaviour modification and medication.

It is also vital to obtain a diagnosis, as all the clinical signs we see could also be due to play, training problems or medical problems. Dogs need a full physical exam and a very detailed history taken.  Encourage owners to set a video as they leave the house so they can get a real idea of what their dog is doing. It makes diagnosis a lot easier.

There are veterinary behaviour specialists and veterinary behaviourists available so discuss referral.

The most important thing to make sure owners understand is that the dogs are not behaving badly to get even with their owner for leaving, or to spite them. They are anxious, even panicked, and certainly not thinking rationally. Punishment will only make the problem worse for two reasons: punishment is occurring usually hours after the event, and punishment will make an anxious dog more anxious.

Behaviour modification is aimed at getting their dogs relaxed in their absence and uses a variety of techniques. Clomicalm, Reconcile and Adaptil collars/diffusers have all been shown to alleviate signs in double-blind studies and are commonly used in behaviour practice. Affected dogs are all different and it may take a while to find the best treatment plan for each dog.

Any other tips you wish to share?

Giving puppies the best toys and treats as we are leaving the house is a good start for prevention but may not help the severely affected dogs.

Keep owner’s departures and arrivals fairly low key. Exercise and play seems to help anxious dogs in general, but not if it occurs within a short time of owners leaving or returning.

Start small- training a dog to remain relaxed on their bed in one room while their owner is in a different part of the house. Owners also need to ignore the inappropriate attention-seeking behaviour that some of these dogs show. Some dogs do better with a television being left on, sleeping on an item of clothing containing their owner’s scent, being allowed inside with access to outside via a doggy door, or a dogsitter/doggy day care. Sometimes owners have to try a variety of these to see what works best. Only very occasionally will getting a second dog help, but be prepared in case you end up with a different set of problems. 

Dr Diane van Rooy has kindly shared her contact details. If you are the owner of a lab or golden retriever and would like to participate in her study, please contact her on 0423 087 823, visit her website here (this has links to the survey, information about her project and some cute dog pics) or email her at