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When Dogs Need Some Extra TLC

Dogs are highly social creatures. One of the things that makes them such popular pets is the strong bonds they form with their owners. But the downside of this relationship can be the separation anxiety that sets in when a dog is separated from its family. That separation can lead to troubling behavior, like howling, chewing, and barking.

Resident veterinarian Debbye Turner joins The Saturday Early Show to discuss this issue and says it can be difficult to resolve.

What causes separation anxiety?

Pets that are extraordinarily attached to their owners are susceptible to the anxiety of being separated from them. These are the pets that follow you from room to room, never letting you out of their sight. There are some factors that might lead to separation anxiety, including a traumatic event, early separation from the mother, a sudden change of environment and/or lifestyle and long absence from a family member

How to recognize separation anxiety

Some of the signs exhibited in separation anxiety are inappropriate urination and defecation; destructive behavior, such as digging; chewing, especially at the exit that the pet owner used to leave; excessive barking and whining; depression, and hyperactivity. It is important to note that all of these behaviors can signal other health problems as well, so it is always important to consult your veterinarian before taking any course of action. Also, the behaviors associated with separation anxiety are not spiteful actions but ways your pet relieves the high stress it feels when you are away. Punishing a pet for these behaviors is not the answer.

Cats can also show signs of separation anxiety. They may sulk or hide when their owner is about to leave, or show unusual enthusiasm upon the owner's return. They may show the same signs that dogs show, such as excessive vocalizing, inappropriate urination or defecation, destructive behavior, plus excessive grooming or vomiting. But this is far more rare in cats than dogs.

Treatment

For mild cases of separation, especially when boredom is the real problem, there are a few techniques that may solve the problem. They include:

  • Leave a TV or radio on while you are away;
  • Leave an article of clothing, like an old T-shirt that you've slept in, with the dog;
  • Leave puzzle toys that require work and time for the dog to get to the treat.

    Getting a new pet after your dog has exhibited separation anxiety probably won't help the situation. The anxiety is because you are away. Another animal in the house with whom the pet has to compete for attention might not be a good idea. But getting two dogs or two cats at the same time may be a good way to teach them to use each other for company instead of depending on you.

    Punishment is not the answer to separation anxiety. It only encourages the dog to look for another way to deal with his stress. It is essential to address the source of the problem, not just the resulting behavior.

    The key time is just before departure, within 30 minutes of leaving. What you do during this time is critical for reducing the signs of separation anxiety. It is important to find ways around the "triggers" that cue your pet that you are about to leave. Like if you always turn off the TV, pick up your purse, etc. These are all signs to the animal that you are about to leave. Some animals will begin to whine and shake just observing these rituals.

    One way to treat the dog is with a type of de-sensitization. Leave the dog for just a few minutes. Then return, but with no big greetings. Then leave the dog for a slightly longer period of time. And return. Keep increasing the interval of time that you are away until the dog is able to stay in the house alone without displaying signs of anxiety. This is a slow, deliberate process. You must be patient. If you get to a time away where the dog again begins to show signs of separation anxiety, start the process all over again. It is vital that your departure and arrivals are as calm as possible. No big goodbyes and no extensive hellos.

    When you return, ignore the dog. No eye contact, no hello, no petting. Just go about your business as if the dog is not there. As soon as he calms down, and sits down, you can greet the dog. Maybe even give him a little treat for settling down. The dog will soon learn to remain calm and sit when you return.

    The use of a crate may prove to be frustrating. If a dog suffers from severe separation anxiety, he will only exhibit those signs in the much more confined space. This could be disastrous. The best way to make crate training work is to start when the pooch is very young. Always associate positive things with the crate, for instance give him treats while in the crate, or feed him there, play with him there. Never use the crate as punishment. This way, the dog comes to associate good things with being in the crate. That way when you put the dog in a crate before leaving, he will expect something good to happen when you get back.

    The use of anti-anxiety medications should be saved as a last resort and used in combination with a behavior modification program. Consult your veterinarian for the best course of action.

    Prognosis for recovery from separation anxiety is very good. It just takes time, patience, and a little tough love.

    For information and products that might be useful for treatment your dog's separation anxiety, check the following Web sites.

    www.Petmate.com

    www.vpl.com

    www.premier.com

    www.animalbehavior.net

    dogs.about.com

    www.kongcompany.com

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