You've just finished performing a wellness exam on a 3-year-old Labrador retriever and have found no abnormalities. As you escort the client and dog to the front desk, the client says, "Oh, I also wanted to ask you about Duke's behavior. He's destroying everything in the house while we're gone. Last week he chewed the trim off the door and ate the blinds."
Illustration by Phil Bliss
Your first step here is to schedule a time when you can talk in detail with the client—and other family members if possible—about this issue. Destructive behavior is common in dogs, and clients are frequently unaware of the root of the problem. Separation anxiety may be the cause. In my experience, many dogs with this condition can be treated successfully, preserving the human-animal bond. If, after obtaining the behavior history, you determine the dog has separation anxiety, here are some key messages to convey:
Explain that the dog is not eating the walls out of spite. Many clients think their dog is destroying everything or urinating and defecating in the house because it's "mad" that they left it home alone. This attitude is counterproductive to treating the dog's anxiety and can even destroy the clients' bond with their pet.
Encourage the client to feel sympathy for the dog rather than anger. I say something like, "Duke is so strongly bonded to you and your family that he has a panic attack when you're gone. He's eating the door because he's freaked out. He's desperate to escape to be with you." Be sure the client knows that punishment is inappropriate and will only increase the dog's anxiety.
Talk to clients about gradual desensitization, emphasizing that behavioral modification will take time and effort on the family's part. Explain that they'll need to take baby steps, gradually increasing the length of time they leave the dog alone, starting with just a few seconds and working up to lengthier sessions.
Refer clients to other resources. Instruct clients based on the behavior modification protocols for separation anxiety, desensitization, and counterconditioning from Dr. Karen Overall's Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals (Mosby, 1997).
Discuss the use of antianxiety medications. Clients are often hesitant to give their pets psychoactive medications. I tell clients that while behavior modification is ideal, many dogs have such a high level of anxiety that medications are an important adjunct to treatment. I explain that we're not "doping up" Duke; instead, we're helping him relax so he can learn to cope with the family's absence and respond appropriately to the behavior and environmental modification techniques.
Often, we need to ask clients about their pets' behavior rather than waiting for them to mention it. If a problem comes up, you'll likely need to schedule another visit. But a quick question or two during each wellness visit can help you stay on top of the situation.
Dr. Laura McLain is an associate at Central Valley Veterinary Hospital in South Salt Lake, Utah. Send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org