Unique in Every Way But One
It has been an absolute honor to have spent almost 18 years working with dog separation anxiety clients. I have learned so much and gained a tremendous understanding of the nuances of this condition. Every dog is a unique individual and presents something slightly different for me to discover and integrate into their training protocol. It is one of the things that makes this work so fascinating; each case is so distinctive and as a result there is never a dull moment. There is one thing that is a constant with every single one of these dogs; they are all experiencing a behavioral emergency. In this blog we will discuss treatment options more in depth, including dog separation anxiety medication.
The first time I heard the phrase behavioral emergency my mind screamed YES, THAT’S EXACTLY IT! Dog separation anxiety (or its more commonly diagnosed form, isolation distress) is truly a panic disorder. Although this may seem completely irrational to guardians, it’s as real as it gets in the eyes of the dog. Fear floods over the dog. Because of this, it can (and most often does) manifest in many outward ways. These include common indicators – vocalization, destruction, and elimination. And remember, these are just some of the outward symptoms – inwardly the dog’s heart rate is soaring and we can only imagine how he is feeling internally from this alone-time terror.
Welfare is Key
Why is it important that we realize that dog separation anxiety is a behavioral emergency? Because treating the condition is genuinely a welfare issue for the dog.
According to the American Pet Products Association 2015-2016 study, it is estimated that there are 78 million dogs owned in the United States. That’s about 44% of the population that has a dog. In a study done by Eli Lilly in 2007 it was reported that 17% of dogs in the U.S. suffer from dog separation anxiety. This means there would be over 13 million dogs that are affected by this condition. This is not surprising since a publication by Sherman and Mills in 2008 discussed that upwards of 20% of the cases referred to animal behavior practices in North America are diagnosed with SA. As this is so prevalent we can see that this issue needs some serious attention.
Because these dogs are suffering, treatment must be carefully and seriously considered. That treatment includes managing the dog’s alone time, using a training process called gradual desensitization, and talking to a vet about the potential inclusion of medication for the dog.
Let me do a full stop here and say a few things about medication. Because I am not a veterinarian I cannot advise on medication; let’s make that very clear. I have, however, worked with hundreds of vets in conjunction with my clients. This allowed me to see the very positive effects that behavioral pharmacology use can have within a dog separation anxiety protocol. You may have a strong bias one way or another about medication. Please know I absolutely understand and respect that. The point of this blog is not to try and convince you one way or another. It is simply to relay some information about medication. I believe it is needed particularly due to the important role it can play when working toward successful home-alone time. Having this information will hopefully help guide you to making your own informed decision with your veterinarian’s advisement.
Dog Separation Anxiety Medication Basics
There are several types of dog separation anxiety medication available on the market. Although there are many choices, only two are FDA approved. These two medications are Reconcile (brand name for fluoxetine or more commonly known as Prozac) and Clomicalm (brand name for clomipramine).
The newest FDA approved dog separation anxiety medication is Reconcile. It is an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor), which is intended to help reduce anxiety. Reconcile is administered daily. This medication should allow the dog to have more tolerance in their alone-time threshold thereby helping in the training process. As with any medication, there can be side-effects. In my experience, the most commonly observed are some inappetence and/or some mild lethargy. These and other seen side-effects tend to go away after a short time once the medication has been adapted in the dog’s system. Because every dog is different, each individual may experience unique medicinal reactions.
Clomicalm is a try-cyclic antidepressant. It is the first FDA approved dog separation anxiety medication. The way it is different than an SSRI is that rather than just targeting the one neurotransmitter (serotonin) it affects others as well. Like Prozac, Clomicalm (or its generic version) is administered daily. This will help to bring the dog’s anxiety level down to assist the training process. The more common side effects that I have seen amongst my clients using this medication are lethargy, increased thirst, and sometimes digestive upset. Again, these tend to wane after a short time on the medication.
Med Behavior Goals
The goal of any behavioral medication use is to not alter the dog in such a way that his personality is changed or that he is sleepy all the time or appears doped! If you see anything like that when using any behavior medication, you should let your veterinarian know so that they can consider adjusting the dosage or using a different med altogether.
Both of the above dog separation anxiety medication options can have contraindications (can interact badly) with other medications. This can occur with natural with remedies as well so it is imperative to discuss anything you are giving to your dog with your veterinarian.
Lots of Availability
As previously stated, the only FDA approved meds are Reconcile and Clomicalm. There are however, a host of other meds that are available. Most medications chosen as a first line of defense are daily antidepressants. There are also adjunct medications that can be used either alone or in conjunction with a daily med to help further with the anxiety. A veterinary behaviorist or behaviorally savvy veterinarian will help make the right choice for your dog. Please know (and be patient with the fact) that there may be some trial and error as you wade through the process of discovering exactly what the right pharmacological mix is to best support your dog.
Take Time to Consider
I urge you to consider speaking to a veterinary behaviorist or your personal vet if your dog is experiencing separation anxiety. If you think that you should wait to consider meds when things get really bad, or when you’ve tried everything else, or when you have done a few months of training by itself first, you could really be doing your beloved dog a disservice. Honestly, if you had an infection and your doctor decided to wait on antibiotics until advanced sepsis set in, wouldn’t you think that was an exceedingly poor decision? In my opinion, and that of the many vets I have worked with, medication for separation anxiety has minimal risk. Dog separation anxiety medication also has lots of potential benefits that can help your dog achieve a better quality of life, and as such really should be considered.