Ease separation anxiety

7/2/95

Dear Dr. Spiegel,

We have been readers of your column in the News Journal for quite sometime and we are hoping you can help us with a problem we are experiencing with our pet. We wonder if other pet owners have had the same problem we are having with our "Kelly."

Kelly is a six year old male beagle. Every time we leave him alone he barks constantly, drools, chews and shreds our rugs, curtains and has tried to eat the doors. Since both of us work, he is alone from 7:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every weekday. We have tried everything we can think of to break him of this habit without any success. Finally we decided to purchase a cage so we can at least keep him confined in an area where he cannot damage the house. The first day we used the cage, we came home and found him so hoarse he could hardly bark. We assumed he must have barked all day long. Not knowing what he was doing in his cage all day alone, we decided to tape his actions over a four hour period. We were amazed to see him in action. It appears he did not have one "relaxed"moment while he was in the cage.

We were wondering if we have approached this problem from the wrong perspective? Should we continue to use the cage even though it appears it causes him a lot of stress or should we look for some sort of medication to help him overcome his anxiety? He is a totally different animal when we are at home. He lies around the house most of the day and is very well behaved.

We are sending you the tape we took of him to show you just how stressed he becomes. I really feel like we are mistreating him by caging him; but we cannot have his destructive behavior continue. HELP!

Sincerely,

R.H., Wilmington


Dear R.H.,

Yes, many other owners have had the same problem with their dogs, and I've had the pleasure of being able to help a good number of these otherwise wonderful animals resume a state of "ease" from their "dis-ease."

The disease is known as separation anxiety, and it is fairly common, although widely misunderstood.

When it comes to approaching the problem of separation anxiety (or any other problem for that matter), "perspective," as you have mentioned, is everything! Many people attempt to treat this problem (and others) symptomatically. That is, they address the chewing or the barking or the urinating or the digging or the pacing with crating or punishment or sedatives, as though these behaviors were the whole of the problem. The fact of the matter is... these behaviors are just symptoms, or manifestations, of a deeper problem. The root source of the problem is an extreme level of anxiety (when separated from owners, or loved ones, on whom the dog has become overly dependent). And as with any problem, in the source also lies the solution.

When you eliminate the anxiety, you eliminate the problem. This can be accomplished quickly in most situations with an appropriate choice of anti-depressant/ anti-anxiety medications. I have found Prozac to be the most efficacious choice, though it is also the most expensive. Amitriptyline, while effective less frequently, can be much more "cost"- effective. Doses of both can vary widely among different sizes and breeds of dog.

The medication serves to buy you time, so that you can begin a course of behavior modification techniques designed to teach the dog to maintain a state of relaxation through the entire process of your departure. Without the medication, every daily trip to work would be a lethal setback to the progress derived from the behavior modification.

Thanks for the tape. Videotaping separation anxiety cases is a method I have engaged in a good number of times in the past. It can be very helpful to distinguish between separation anxiety and other causes of similar behaviors, as well as between a few different forms of separation anxiety.

Unfortunately, print media does not allow readers to appreciate the distress experienced by Kelly and other separation-anxiety dogs, but I can assure you it's not a pretty sight.