This expert response comes from Amy Nichelason and Maria Verbrugge, veterinarians with UW Veterinary Care’s Primary Care service.
Question: I am looking for advice on how to treat a 14-year-old dog who has separation anxiety. My vet has prescribed trazodone, but this does not work. This all started when we had to put our other dog down. If I leave Murphy at home, he goes from room to room, gets out of breath, and will have accidents. I worry about him since your fine doctors fixed him when he had laryngeal paralysis. So, I have resorted to taking him wherever I go; he has become my work dog. Any suggestions would be helpful. — Susan, Belvidere, Illinois
Answer: We’re so sorry you’ve been dealing with this after the loss of your other dog. It’s great you’ve recognized the stress your dog is experiencing; this is an essential first step! Separation anxiety can be stressful for both the people and animals in the household.
We think of two main categories for approaching behavior concerns: management and training. Management strategies are anything you do to avoid triggering situations; for example, bringing your dog to work. Other strategies to help dogs with separation anxiety include daycare, pet sitters, or dog walkers.
Training, on the other hand, can take a very long time. It is a gradual process of teaching your dog to cope with being alone. The hard part is that any event where your dog goes “over threshold,” meaning he is alone for longer than he can cope, can be very scary and set back his training. So, training exercises are best set up through an experienced dog trainer who uses exclusively positive reinforcement techniques, or better yet, a veterinary behaviorist (visit dacvb.org to see if there is one near you).
We’re sorry to hear the trazodone hasn’t been helpful. You may want to check with your veterinarian to see if they have ideas for a different dose, timing, or medication. No pill will cure separation anxiety on its own, but in some cases, medications can help when combined with management and training strategies.
For further information, the book I’ll Be Home Soon by Patricia McConnell is an excellent resource.