Friday, May 27, 2016

Separation anxiety in dogs

dogs separation anxiety behaviour welfare
Sadie the doodle demonstrates a dog mounted camera.
The AVA Annual Conference is in full swing, and keynote speaker in the behaviour stream, Professor Xavier Manteca has been sharing his knowledge about the behaviour of small and large animals. He provided an interesting update on separation anxiety in dogs. Given this is a massive welfare issue, affecting a huge number of dogs, I thought I’d share some key points I’d learned.

First some background – the figures vary between studies, but separation anxiety and related behaviours may account for 15 per cent of behaviour cases seen in general practice, and 40 per cent of cases seen by behaviour specialists. In a UK study, only 13 per cent of owners of affected dogs sought veterinary advice. Male dogs are more commonly affected, as are some breeds (e.g. cocker spaniels). Separation anxiety can lead to dog to be surrendered or euthanased. Furthermore, unmanaged separation anxiety can cause severe, prolonged distress.

The most common signs are
  • Vocalisations (in one study, over 80 per cent of dogs with separation anxiety vocalise, which can be a nightmare not just for dogs and owners but also neighbours)
  • Inappropriate toileting
  • Increased activity/movement/restlessness
  • Anorexia
  • Excessive salivation

In addition there are other disease associations, e.g. dogs with separation anxiety have increased skin conditions.

As technology becomes less expensive and more user friendly, I find a lot of clients who have concerns about their dog’s behaviour are hooking up webcams and streaming footage to their phone. This is actually VERY helpful, as most dogs are unlikely to exhibit signs of separation anxiety when their owner is present with them in a consult room. And being anxious when left at the vet isn’t diagnostic, because it’s quite common. So that cover home footage is very useful.

So what did I learn?
  1. Not all dogs show signs. In some dogs, anxiety may trigger behavioural inhibition – i.e. they become much less active. These dogs may be just as anxious but they’re unlikely to be presented to a vet. They may suffer more than the dog’s whose suffering is more obvious to us.
  2. Dogs with separation anxiety have a negative cognitive bias. Cognitive bias refers to a change in thinking due to our emotional state. So dogs with a negative cognitive bias are more likely to interpret a neutral cue as negative, whereas those with a positive cognitive bias are more likely to interpret a neutral cue as positive (the glass-half-empty and glass-half-full approaches to life, respectively). Separation anxiety, according to current evidence, is associated with a long-lasting, negative affective or emotional state in affected dogs. This is an issue because we tend to think dogs with separation anxiety are totally fine when their owners are present. But recent studies suggest that their background emotional state may be negative.
  3. Separation anxiety is not just about hyperattachment to the owner or owners. Typically we think the dog with separation anxiety simply cannot bear to be parted from a particular owner. But not all dogs with separation anxiety have hyperattachment, and not all hyperattached dogs develop separation anxiety. Other possible causes include contextual fear (something scary happens to the dog when alone, resulting in a fear of being left alone) or inappropriate attachment (dogs are insecure because the owners tend to avoid them or be ambivalent about them).The latter is likely to occur when owners are not consistent or predictable.
  4. The mainstays of treatment are the same – medication (anxiolytics), environmental enrichment, and behavioural modification. Environmental enrichment is supposed to work by increasing serotonin and endorphin levels, but at the level of behaviour it gives dogs something to spend their time budget on other than being anxious. Interestingly, Dr Manteca does not recommend the usual strategy of owners avoiding giving cues they are about to leave. He suggested the opposite: increasing predictability of the owner’s departure by making it clear the owner will leave. According to Dr Manteca, “Unlike the standard treatment recommended so far by most authors, we recommend increasing the predictability of the owner’s departure. This is because the perception of predictability is one of the main psychological modulators of the stress response: predictable aversive events are less stressful than non-predictable ones, as animals will be able to identify safe periods during which the event will not occur. In contrast, unpredictable aversive events, when animals are unable to identify safe periods, are more likely to elicit a state of chronic anxiety.” If you know something bad is going to happen, but don’t know when, it’s more stressful than knowing when.

He recommends maintaining the cues that signal departure (hanging an umbrella on the back of the door, for example), and adding an additional cue that can be placed by the exit just prior to departure. This can be removed on return. Dogs can first be habituated to separation by “fake” departures, using a different cue (such as taping a white piece of paper to the back of the door) than you will eventually use for the real departures.  Dogs can be left for short periods of increasing length to help desensitise them, over a period of around 6-7 weeks.

Ultimately, consistency in our interactions with dogs is key.

Again as a companion animal vet it makes me very happy to learn about increased research into the mental health of animals.

If you want to read more on the mental wellbeing of animals, check out our interview withDr Katrina Ward.