Medical Rest and Separation Anxiety: How Do I Manage Both At Once?

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Dogs who have separation anxiety, even mild separation anxiety, can be restless at best, or self-harm at worst.

What happens when your dog needs to rest quietly for her health and safety, but cannot be in a crate and left alone?

In today’s Ask a Behaviour Consultant, we tackle this puzzle for Lily and her guardian. Lily was born with Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD). IVDD is a hardening of the cushioning between the spinal discs. Sometimes a jump up onto the bed or a fall off of the furniture can rupture a disc, so it is imperative to prevent Lily from doing so.

When she is having a flare-up, she has to remain as calm as possible (bed rest!)

Today’s question is:

Lily has mild separation anxiety and we’ve learned to manage it pretty well. But she also has IVDD and there are times she needs to be crated while home alone. She does not do well when left alone in a crate (but she’s fine if I’m home).

– Sincerely, Beagle Panic.

To Crate or Not to Crate?

Crates are not always the best solution for a dog who has separation anxiety. Sometimes, they can actually do more harm than good because being confined makes the dog more nervous.

Sometimes, simply trying a new solution, such as using baby gates to cordon off a larger area of the house or even allowing the dog free-range of the house, or part of the house can lead to a dog who sleeps peacefully while you’re away.

This applies even if your dog is ok with being in the crate at night or while you’re home with them.

It’s always worth a try to watch your dog remotely when they have free access to your home while you’re away, to see if this solves the problem before trying anything else. Furbos and PetCube Bites both allow you to watch your pup and send her treats during the day!

Since Beagle Panic needs Lily to be as calm as possible, it is imperative that if they do try this solution, they should assure that there is no access to the furniture, to prevent her attempting to jump up on it (or down off of it) and hurting herself.

Cordoning off these items are important for Lily to be safe, or limiting access through the use of gates or pens could be a useful option.

Prevention as a First Line of Defense

The first line of defense for separation anxiety is managing it. This is not a long term fix, but it prevents panic and the associated behavior.

In my online course, Left Alone! Solutions for Separation Anxiety, students have come up with some pretty creative ways to assure that their dog is never left home alone to feel the distress of separation. Then they can successfully work on changing their dog’s emotional response to being left home alone.

Some of these management ideas include:

  • Take them with you! Taking your dog with you whenever you can: to stores, patios, work, or school.
  • Pet sitters. Having a friend or family member care for the dog, sometimes in shifts. There are also often professional pet-sitters available if you need to be away for a few hours and no one else is available.
  • Daycare. This is a good solution if your dog likes this kind of fast-paced environment. Regardless, this is unfortunately not suitable for Lily when she needs to be on bed rest.
  • The car. Some dogs are happy to chill in the car for an hour. This might be a better solution for some dogs, obviously when the weather warrants (not too hot or too cold.) And always with fresh water and a yummy stuffed Kong!

I won’t sugar coat it, it isn’t an easy feat with our busy schedules and lifestyles. But it is incredibly important to prevent the panic of being home alone, or it could get worse or prevent any progress with training.

Also, Lily must be calm to avoid further injury during a flare-up, and prevention may be her best option for a short term solution.

Revisit the Vet For a Chat About Meds

Beagle Panic needs a solution for Lily, now! Though training (behavior modification) is something she can work on down the road, she needs to have a solution in the interim.

I would advise discussing medication with Lily’s veterinarian.

Because Beagle Panic doesn’t have to leave Lily all day, every day, and given how important it is that Lily remains calm, she could discuss some medications that will help Lily stay calm and more relaxed (anti-anxiety) and/or meds that make her sleepy (sedatives).

There are multiple options, so one may work better than others. As well, some can and cannot be taken in conjunction with Lily’s pain medication. That’s why it’s important to talk to your vet!

When my senior dog, who had doggie dementia, began to panic in the evenings from confusion and stress, we tried several anti-anxiety medications before finding the right combination for her. Her needs also changed over time, so it required ongoing monitoring.

Along with using medication, there are a lot of natural supplements and alternative products available through your veterinarian and elsewhere, that might help in conjunction with medication.

Just a few suggests are:

  • Zylkene, a product derived from casein, a milk protein, that promotes relaxation.
  • Thunder Shirt, a body wrap that promotes a feeling of calmness through consistent gentle overall pressure to the body.
  • Adaptil, a replication of an appeasing pheromone, which can help to reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Some studies show classical music can help with relaxation, though the jury is still out on how effective this is. It certainly can’t hurt trying it!
  • L-Theanine, an amino acid derivative that can reduce nervous tension associated with anxiety.

Food for Thought

When Beagle Panic does need to leave Lily at home alone, leaving her with fun food puzzles is a good way to keep her busy doing something that doesn’t require her to move around too much.

Food puzzles or frozen stuffed Kongs (frozen will last twice as long if she is ready for expert level) stuffed with her most favorite combination of food are good, safe options.

Sometimes, however, when a dog is feeling anxious, they won’t actually eat food or turn their nose up at the sight of a Kong. So this will depend on the level of Lily’s anxiety when Beagle Panic is away.

It will also depend on whether the Kong is only given to Lily right before Beagle Panic leaves the house. See where I am going with this? It can easily become a departure cue―a signal to Lily that her human friend is about to leave.

To avoid this, it is important to make sure that Lily also gets a Kong, or other forms of food-dispensing toys, when there is no plan for Beagle Panic to leave the house.

Long Term Solutions

If Beagle Panic would like to work on leaving Lily longer and longer without her panicking, she will need to practice.

I suggest following along with my self-directed online course which includes exercises to get your dog used to your absences slowly and systematically. Or, my forthcoming e-book which covers the same topics.

Separation anxiety is a challenge to contend with, even for the most healthy dog. Throw in medical complications, and sometimes we just have to be creative.

It sounds like Beagle Panic is on the right track, and hopefully Lily can remain comfortable and happy through these difficult rest periods.

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