Before diagnosing SA, the importance of getting your dog health checked by a veterinarian must be emphasised. This is because many of the clinical signs listed above (e.g. foot chewing, inappropriate elimination) can indicate other disease processes and these must be identified and managed appropriately first.
Treatments options for SA follow a three step approach:
1. Behaviour modification
2. Environmental management
3. Medication (which may help increase receptivity to behaviour modification)
SA can be a very complex and difficult behaviour to correct. It takes time (and lots of it) so patience is definitely important here.
Behaviour modification should focus on a positive reinforcement strategy. A dog with SA will need to learn that he/she can be left alone without panicking. Ideally, try and identify the trigger for SA (e.g. picking up car keys or opening the front door). Make this event a positive one – food is usually very helpful here. For example: give the dog a treat, pick up the car keys, walk around the house as if you are going to leave, put the keys down and reward the dog again. Over time try and progress to picking up keys, leaving the house for a short period of time (e.g. 5min) and then returning. Gradually make these time intervals longer.
Environmental enrichment is another important element in treating many behavioural disorders, including SA. Environmental enrichment can be implemented immediately and prompt positive results are usually seen while waiting for behaviour modifications and medication to take effect. Strategies for environmental enrichment include:
Exercise – It is widely accepted that exercise is necessary for optimal health in dogs. This is especially true for highly energetic or young dogs. Generally, these types of dogs benefit from exercise because their behaviours may not necessarily stem from anxiety, but from increased energy and lack of enrichment.
Boredom-busting is another essential component of environmental enrichment. Food (e.g. bones, pigs ears), toys and especially food-toys (such as Kongs) are commonly used in the treatment of SA to keep the animal occupied during stressful events and to facilitate counterconditioning. It is best to engage the dog before the stressful event (e.g. picking up car keys). Toys can be stuffed with a mixture of low-fat, high value foods that keep the dog’s interest.
Some dogs may be refractory to behavioural and environmental modification and medical intervention will sometimes be necessary in these cases. Medications used in the treatment of SA include Adaptil, long-term anti-depressants (TCAs, SSRIs) and occasionally short-term anxiolytics (benzodiazepines).
Adaptil sprays, diffusers or collars are a very good place to start in this regard. Adaptil is a synthetic version of the comforting pheromone (dog appeasing pheromone, or D.A.P) released by the mother dog to reassure her puppies. Clinical studies have demonstrated that DAP helps provide reassurance and comfort to puppies and dogs of all ages. It is therefore recommended to help prevent and reduce stress-related behaviours (e.g. SA, bringing a new puppy home, a trip to the vet) and has been shown to make dogs more responsive to behavioural therapy and training.
Again, it is important to remember that there is rarely a ‘quick fix’ for behavioural problems in dogs and cats and they often require a lot of time and patience. If you would like some more information regarding SA or any other behavioural issues (cats included) please don’t hesitate to give us a call to chat to one of our knowledgeable nurses or to book a consult with a vet.