Medicine for Dog Separation Anxiety
The purpose of writing this article is to share my insight on a what some see as a controversial topic: medication for dog separation anxiety. It’s a topic many people have strong feelings about and there is often a worry putting their dogs on prescription medication. These concerns include financial considerations, side effects, personality changes and personal biases against psychoactive medication in general. The goal of writing this article is not to convince you one way or the other but to give you accurate information based on my knowledge and experience of working with dog separation anxiety and behaviour problems in general and to clear up some misconceptions, so that you can truly appreciate that the advantages of using medication with highly anxious dogs vastly outweighs the disadvantages.
Let me start off by saying that I am not a veterinary professional and as with all medication you should always check with your vet first. We will touch on this in more detail later, but this applies to holistic and ‘natural’ treatments and over the counter medicine as well. Always talk to your vet before starting any medication treatment regimen.
Is Medicine Right for My Dog?
As with so many things in behaviour related issues, there is no “one size fits all.” What I am sharing with you today is based on my education and personal experience in working with many vets and dogs with behaviour issues not only but including separation anxiety. What I will say straight away is that I firmly believe that prescription medication has a significant place in the training process for dogs with separation anxiety.
It is important to take a moment to define what we mean by “medication.” This term can mean a lot of different things to different people. In this article I am concentrating on medication that has been proven scientifically to be effective in psychological behaviour issues and can only be prescribed by a veterinary professional but I will also discuss my thoughts on what is termed alternative or holistic ‘natural’ medication and supplements.
The Goal of Medicine for Dog Separation Anxiety
Let me be clear, the goal of integrating medicine into dog separation anxiety training is NOT to change your dog’s personality in any way or to sedate him but rather to provide relief from anxiety, and not only make him a happier dog but also to help him progress through the training programme more quickly.
Side Effects of Medicine for Dog Separation
As with any medication, psychoactive or general, there may be side effects. These can vary depending on the individual so it is always important to keep an eye on how your dog is doing, especially in the early days of taking the medicine. However, with the most commonly used medication for dog separation anxiety, serious side effects are rare and although some may experience mild discomfort, such as going off their food or lethargy in the early stages, this usually passes after a few days. If the side effects are worrying you and do go on for any length of time you should of course contact your vet for advice as dosage may need to be altered or an alternative medication prescribed.
Common Owner Concerns and Misconceptions
As I said before, medicine for dog separation anxiety can be a subject many people are wary of but many of these concerns are due to misconceptions about prescription medication. Let’s have a look as some of these concerns –
- Training from a Qualified Behaviourist should “cure” my dog. Although I have seen separation anxiety successfully treated with just training it is more often than not the case. More often severe separation anxiety cannot be treated efficiently without the use of medication. An anxious dog (or an anxious human) cannot learn new behaviours – their brains are too overwhelmed with anxiety to absorb new information. A dog with separation anxiety is in a panicked state and in order to learn needs to be calm and relaxed. Think back to the last time you were truly scared. Do you feel as if that would have been the best time to learn? Medication offers your dog relief from that anxiety so training can be more effective and progress speedier.
- Medicine Just Makes my Dog Sleepy. This is the most common misconception. Medicine used in the training process of dog separation anxiety is NOT a sedative, but rather an anti-anxiety treatment. We do not want to sedate your dog as a sleepy dog cannot learn, we just want to make him less anxious.
- Costs and Dispensing the Medicine. For the most part, the types of prescription medication used is affordable and may even be covered by your pet insurance. Of course, you have to ensure your dog takes his medicine consistently, which at times can be challenging but mixing it in his food or a yummy treat usually does the trick.
- Medicine is not Natural. Anything you give your dog outside normal food and water is not “natural” to his diet and I believe medicine is no different. If you were to give your dog something “holistic”, it is still something you are introducing into his system that he would not normally consume.
Is Medicine for Dog Separation Anxiety Safe?
Again, I am not a vet, but there have been many scientific studies regarding these types of medicines, which show they can be safely used in a healthy dog when prescribed and monitored by a veterinary professional. Most of these medicines have been in use for many years in both dogs and humans and have little to no side effects. This is not to say that there are never any side effects as every dog is an individual but usually, if there are mild side effects, the dog acclimatises to the medication after a few days. Of course, if you have any concerns always contact your vet and if your dog is using long term medication it is always a good idea to have regular check-ups with your vet.
Types of Medicine for Dog Separation Anxiety
I will not go into the specifics of medicine used by name as I am not a veterinary professional but I will discuss the two categories usually prescribed: Daily and Situational.
Daily Medicine is medication that is administered on a daily basis for long term use. The goal of this type of medicine is to keep a consistent level in your dog’s system over a long period. This allows the symptoms of anxiety to be reduced all of the time. It needs time to build up in the system and takes time to become fully effective – usually several weeks, although some effect may be seen in a few days.
Situational Medicine is for short term use in cases where a specific event can trigger a high level of anxiety in a dog and relief is needed quickly. For example, if a dog becomes highly anxious during thunderstorms or during fireworks, a situational type drug would be the most effective. The impact is more immediate when compared to Daily Medicine. Sometimes situational medicine is used in conjunction with longer term medication to help a dog with several behaviour issues such as separation anxiety and specific noise phobias.
Generally speaking, daily medicine is the type used for dog separation anxiety as this is a long-term process together with a treatment plan.
What must be noted is that no medication is a ‘cure’ and must always be used in conjunction with a behaviour modification programme so that the dog learns to cope properly with his fears. Medication may sometimes make it look like the behaviour issue has ‘gone away’ but without behaviour modification, as soon as the medication is stopped, the fears and behaviour returns.
Will my Dog be on Medication Forever?
Behaviour issues often take a long time to resolve. How long it will take is very individual so there really is no one answer to a question like this. The plan is always to work with a dog until he is completely relaxed when alone and then to take him off the medication. This is more often the case, but very occasionally they may have to stay on a low dose of the medication permanently. This should not be seen as a negative as it is always done in the best interests of the welfare of the dog. The goal is always to ensure that your dog has the best quality of life and this is always determined on a case by case basis.
What About a Holistic or ‘Natural’ Approach?
I am not saying that you should not look into alternative approaches to medication but in my experience and that of my colleagues, holistic and natural “alternatives” do very little or nothing to help reduce dog separation anxiety symptoms. I have found they are no substitute for prescription medication and because they have little or no scientific research behind them their safety and efficacy is questionable and truly cannot be gauged. In fact, they can be dangerous and contraindicated for some dogs and problems can occur when non-veterinarians try many different remedies. When I work with a client to help treat separation anxiety, the dog’s quality of life is the most important factor. Prescription medication gives that quality of life to your dog consistently and in a scientifically proven manner.
Why Not Wait to See How the Dog Gets On?
Some people want to work with their dog on a training plan first to see how the dog gets on before resorting to medical help. However, if you look at it from a different angle – if you are suffering from depression or even a physical illness and your doctor wanted you to start taking medicine to help you feel better whilst undergoing therapy or to prevent an illness worsening, would you say ‘no, lets wait’. Medication helps your dog feel better sooner and conquer their separation anxiety much faster, which not only helps your dog but helps you return to normal life more quickly. Using medication only as a ‘last resort’ delays progress and wastes time. Scientific studies have shown that using medication together with a behaviour programme speeds up progress and is a huge benefit to your dog’s welfare both physically and emotionally. The benefits of taking medication far outweigh the risks.
What it All Means
In this article we have addressed my thoughts on prescription medication for dog separation anxiety and how it can benefit your dog in conjunction with a training programme. You of course, will have your own feelings and opinions about the use of pharmaceutical medication and you are absolutely entitled to do so. I am not trying to convince you either way but I just wanted to make you aware of the facts and give you food for thought based on scientifically proven products and my experience of using them with dog separation anxiety so that you have the information you need to make your own decision. If you take nothing else away from this article please remember that the most important thing to consider is your dog’s quality of life. Prescription medication can and does relieve the distressing physical and emotional symptoms of separation anxiety and makes a training programme more effective, in both improving your dog’s welfare and speeding up his progress in learning to be happy at home alone.
In our forthcoming articles we will be reviewing some common myths surrounding dog separation anxiety and whether getting a second dog will help your dog overcome his fear of being at home alone. Make sure to check back soon!