Is your dog in distress when left alone? Scratching at the doors, chewing the window frames, digging in the sofa, or barking excessively? If you answered yes, chances are your dog is dealing with separation anxiety.
Affecting around 5 percent of the dog population, separation anxiety is an increasingly common behavioral issue, particularly among members of certain dog breeds. It usually manifests with destructive habits and unusual clinginess.
In this article, we will discuss how separation anxiety is a widespread issue and how behavior modification along with medications for dogs with separation anxiety is the winning management strategy.
We will also go through the different medications prescribed for separation anxiety in dogs.
Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Separation anxiety, in simple terms, is a dog's fear of being left alone and spending time alone. It triggers an array of unwanted and often destructive behaviors like digging, chewing, barking, and breaking the housetraining rules.
A dog with separation anxiety is fearful and destructive when spending time on its own, while extra clingy when together with the owner or human family.
It is worth mentioning that certain dog breeds are more likely to develop separation anxiety than others. Such breeds include Labrador Retrievers, Border Collies, Toy Poodles, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, German Shepherds, Australian Shepherds, German Shorthaired Pointers, Jack Russell Terriers, and Vizslas.
On the other hand, generally, Greyhounds, Basset Hounds, French Bulldogs, and Maltese Dogs rarely develop separation anxiety and do perfectly fine when left alone, even for longer timeframes.
The Winning Strategy to Treat Separation Anxiety
When it comes to separation anxiety, there is no one go-to, universally efficient medication. In fact, drugs alone are not enough – they manage the symptoms, but not the root of the problem.
Therefore, the winning strategy for managing separation anxiety is a combination of behavior modification techniques and anti-anxiety meds.
The Behavior Modification Plan
Behavior modification is an efficient, yet challenging strategy based on two processes – desensitization and counter-conditioning. Namely, the idea is to gradually get the dog used to spending time alone and then rewarding its calm behavior.
Creating and implementing the proper behavior modification plan is a tricky job that often requires the assistance of a trained professional, preferably a canine behaviorist experienced in these techniques.
Medications for Dogs With Separation Anxiety
There are different anti-anxiety medications on the market, and most of them require a veterinary prescription. Even if some meds can be purchased over-the-counter, we strongly recommend consulting with your vet before giving your dog an anti-anxiety drug.
Medications for dogs with separation anxiety can be categorized in two groups: maintenance meds and situational meds.
Maintenance Medications for Dogs With Separation Anxiety
Maintenance medications require daily administration regardless of whether the dog will be spending time alone that day or not. Maintenance meds are the perfect solution for dogs with severe separation anxiety whose parents work from 9 to 5, for 5 to 6 days a week.
Maintenance meds therefore do not provide an immediate solution – they work in the long run and make the implementation of the behavior modification plan smoother.
Only two maintenance medications are FDA-approved, and they are both prescribed in conjunction with behavior modification.
Medication 1: Clomipramine (Clomicalm)
Clomipramine acts on two levels – serotonin and norepinephrine. The drug is more efficient in managing anxiety when administered twice per day. It is worth mentioning that clomipramine is one of two FDA-approved drugs for dogs with separation anxiety.
Medication 2: Fluoxetine (Prozac)
Fluoxetine is a neurotransmitter and has a limited effect on serotonin levels. The drug is likely to cause adverse effects in the form of appetite changes.
Dividing the daily dose and administering half a dose twice per day prevents side effects in some dogs. Fluoxetine is the second FDA-approved drug for managing canine separation anxiety.
Medication 3: Paroxetine (Paxil)
Same as the previous drug, paroxetine is a neurotransmitter and does not greatly impact serotonin levels. Luckily, it has milder side effects and is not frequently associated with decreased appetite and anorexia. It is best to give the drug twice per day.
Medication 4: Sertraline (Zoloft)
This is another member of the neurotransmitters family. Sertraline may require compounding when used in smaller dogs, but on the bright side, it rarely triggers side effects like decreased appetite, anorexia, sedation, and constipation. Same as most neurotransmitters, it achieves better results when administered twice per day.
Situational Medications for Dogs With Separation Anxiety
Situational medications (also known as event-based) are used on specific occasions when the otherwise stay-at-home dog parent needs to be absent or the left-alone time is expected to be longer than usual.
Situational meds kick in fast (between 15 minutes and one hour) but do not last long.
In dogs with milder forms of separation anxiety, situational meds can be used as a sole solution. However, in dogs with severe SA, it is best to combine them with maintenance drugs and use the event-based medication as a booster.
Medication 5: Benzodiazepines
The group of benzodiazepines includes different medications which are usually used for dogs exhibiting signs of intense fear or panic responses. Here are of the most frequently used benzodiazepines:
- Alprazolam - achieves results really fast, but its calming effects are short-lasting
- Clonazepam – if used twice per day, may reach a continuous state of calmness
- Clorazepate – it needs more time to kick in, but its effect lasts longer
- Diazepam – is efficient but may cause sedation in some dogs
- Lorazepam – this is considered a safe alternative for young puppies and seniors.
Medication 6: Clonidine
Clonidine achieves calmness and relaxation by modulating the norepinephrine levels. The drug is beneficial for dogs showing signs of anticipatory arousal.
It usually needs between 60 and 90 minutes to achieve effects, but in some dogs, it may cause hypotension (lowered blood pressure) and bradycardia (decreased heart rate).
Medication 7: Trazadone
Trazodone is usually given on an as-needed basis, but it can also be used for short-term anxiety management.
The drug achieves an overall calming effect, usually without the common side effect of ataxia (uncoordinated walking). It usually kicks in slowly – between 60 and 90 minutes.
Medication 8: Acepromazine
Acepromazine is a popular anti-anxiety medication that relieves anxiety by suppressing the central nervous system.
It is likely to cause temporary blood pressure drop and decreased heart rate. Acepromazine is often combined with other drugs for better efficacy and reduced risk of side effects.
Supportive Medications for Dogs With Separation Anxiety
Supportive medications are used in dogs in which the previous meds do not yield positive results or trigger severe and hard-to-manage side effects.
These supportive medications can be used alone or combined with other drugs allowing a dosage decrease.
Medication 9: Gabapentin
Officially, gabapentin is a human medication. In veterinary medicine, it is used off-label to manage seizures, pain, and anxiety.
Gabapentin is short-acting and usually associated with side effects like extreme lethargy or even sedation and lack of coordination or ataxia (a drunk-like gait in dogs). Slow introduction and gradual dosage increase can prevent side effects occurrence.
Medication 10: Buspirone
Buspirone is another popular anti-anxiety medication. However, the drug is not particularly efficient in managing dogs with separation anxiety.
Instead, it has potent effects when it comes to managing phobias. Therefore, buspirone is best combined with other meds and used for dogs suffering from different anxiety forms simultaneously.
Medication 11: Amitriptyline
Amitriptyline is an anti-depressant drug that works by increasing serotonin and norepinephrine levels.
It is frequently used in the treatment of anxiety and behavioral issues. In some dogs, it may trigger sedation, and it usually takes between seven and ten days to achieve a complete therapeutic response.
CBD Oil for Dogs With Separation Anxiety
In the past few years, CBD products for dogs have received plenty of attention. Although often called the latest craze in the pet health care industry, there is a reason behind the CBD madness, and a substantial number of studies support its use and benefits.
CBD (cannabidiol) is a natural compound found in the Cannabis sativa plant or, better said, its hemp plant variety. CBD is long-known for its medicinal properties and is quite popular among vets and dog parents looking for holistic alternatives.
Cannabidiol is considered a “potential treatment for anxiety disorders,“ thus offering a new concept in separation anxiety management. CBD helps dogs with separation anxiety on various levels and is relatively easy to use.
The modern pet CBD market is loaded with different CBD products – oils, chews, treats, and other edibles. The CBD supplement should be used continuously and following the manufacturer’s dosing guidelines to ensure maximum effects.
If you decide to join the trend and try how CBD works for your dog, talk to your vet before purchasing. Once the vet approves the use of CBD, make sure you find a reputable CBD brand selling high-quality, human-grade CBD products.
Did you know? There are also several natural options for reducing a dog's anxiety such as dog-appeasing pheromones and calming nutraceuticals (alpha casozepine or L-theanine).
“Know that these are choices, too, either as adjuncts or if you have a client who is resistant to pharmaceutical intervention or a patient you are concerned about from a safety standpoint, points out veterinary behaviorist Dr. Christopher Pachel in an article for DVM360.
Concluding Thoughts on Canine Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety in dogs is an increasingly widespread behavioral issue with potentially severe consequences. The condition has an adverse effect on the dog’s emotional wellbeing, and its often destructive actions can be nerve-wracking.
Luckily, it is possible to manage separation anxiety. Still, you will need to collaborate closely with a vet and a canine behaviorist and invest time, money, and patience in the right managing strategy.
The golden standard for managing dogs with separation anxiety is the combination of behavior modification methods and anti-anxiety medications.