Separation Anxiety – Making sure we get it right:

Presenter – Dr Valerie Jonckheer-Sheehy, RCVS Certificate in Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law, works at The Animal Behaviour Clinic at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Utrecht University, Netherlands

Last week I performed a health check on a dog called ‘Holly’ who had recently been re-homed from a rescue centre. Unfortunately the new owners had been experiencing some difficulties as every time they left Holly home alone she would vocalise loudly for the entire time leaving their neighbours somewhat disgruntled. Holly seemed in perfect health and I gave the owner a list of behaviourists in the area and advised Holly was probably suffering from separation anxiety(SA). I also mentioned trying to desensitize her by performing actions which usually correlate with the owners leaving the house. For example jangling car keys or opening and shutting the front door and then reappearing shortly afterwards to reassure Holly. I also briefly discussed medication but mentioned I would only use it as a last resort.

After watching last week’s veterinary webinar covering ‘separation anxiety’, my advice could certainly have been better. Valerie Jonckheer-Sheehy led this veterinary webinar organised by ‘The Webinar Vet’ and suggested that SA was a difficult condition to treat, often being a cause for returning pets to animal shelters or even euthanasia.  If an animal already suffering from separation anxiety is re-homed the affected dog is more likely display even more profound signs of separation anxiety, circumstances which may well have affected Holly. Also clinical signs associated with SA stretch far beyond vocalising and destruction – they can include more subtle changes such as panting, salivation or excessive licking.

A diagnosis can be ascertained by getting a good history and ideally seeing video footage of the behaviour. However during my original consult I should have performed a haematology, biochemistry and thyroid level to rule out other illnesses and although Valerie states thyroid illness should always be ruled out , she believes it is an unlikely cause for signs of SA.

Treatment options are very dependent on the owner’s willingness to comply and their life style. Valerie explained the best method of treatment is to avoid the situation of the animal being left on their own. Could the owner take the dog with them or could they get a dog sitter to take care of the dog during the day which, let’s face it, is not very practical for most people. Valerie went on to discuss desensitisation, an area I had discussed with my client but it appears this is the point where I could have given much better advice. Valerie explained this is notoriously difficult for the client to do and if done incorrectly could cause sensitisation and make dogs worse. If desensitisation is an option, the client should always seek help from a fully trained behaviourist so it can be performed correctly.

Valerie also contradicted my advice by explaining treatment with medication perhaps shouldn’t always be the last resort. Valerie stated that treatment with antidepressants increases the rate at which dogs acquire calm behaviour and can be a really useful tool alongside behavioural modifications.  Valerie went on to discuss in great depth a variety of medications which could be used alone or in combination for the treatment of SA.

After watching this veterinary webinar I am sure the next time I get a ‘Holly’ through the door , my advice will be a step up from before and I can be more supportive of this  traumatic disease both for the dog and owner.

The Stethoscope (MRCVS)

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