BALTIMORE - Dr. Shani Scherr knew she was in for a challenge about 2 1/2 years ago when she adopted Penny, a beagle/German Shepherd mix, from a shelter. Scherr, a veterinarian with a Maryland hospital, said Penny had separation anxiety from the day she brought her home.
"I tried crating her when I was not at home, but she was able to escape out of every type of crate I tried," Scherr said. "Next, I tried confining her to the large bathroom, but she ate the molding on the wall, part of the door, and the dog bed I left for her.
"After that, I tired confining her to the kitchen with a baby gate, but she jumped over it, then two baby gates stacked on top of each other. After that, I built her a four foot tall gate to confine her to the kitchen. Again, she ate the dog beds, and by the end of the second time I tried to confine her to the kitchen, she had chewed though the gate and got out."
Scherr said while Penny's case sounds extreme, pets can deal with mental health issues like anxiety and depression just like humans. And just like humans, there are specialists available to help pets cope.
For Scherr, this meant turning to a board certified veterinary behaviorist. The specialist tried a variety of treatment options, including not confining her when Scherr left the house. However, Penny continued to be destructive.
"She chewed and completely destroyed my sofa, ate everything she possibly could get her paws on, and was overall, very very difficult," Scherr said. "She even acted up when I would leave her alone while I took a shower."
Eventually, the specialist recommended Penny go on an anti-depressant. That has seemed to work well as Penny can now stay home alone all day with no problems.
Alison Berlin, a preschool teacher in Baltimore, said her family experienced a similar situation.
Her parents also adopted a dog from a rescue shelter. Their dog's anxiety was so severe that she would have accidents whenever someone approached her. This led to their dog going on anti-depressants.
The treatment yielded positive results.
"Now she is still very shy and hides and follows the little dog my parents also have around," Berlin said.
Jennifer Pearson, who lives in Middle River, said her cat, Finnegan, is on amitriptyline for feline lower urinary tract disease. She added that her cat would get stressed and not be able to urinate.
"We noticed he was in the litter box for a long time and took him to see the vet," Pearson said. "First one vet wanted him to eat special food that he hated and then the second one gave us the meds to use when we see him get upset. So far, so good."
Scherr said some of the symptoms of anxiety in pets include destructive behavior and accidents in the house. Other signs include, vocalizing (howling, whining, or barking) and excessive drooling or panting while the owners are away.
She added that treatment is a two-part process.
"The most important part of treating separation anxiety is behavior modification," she said. "This means that dog owners need to desensitize their dogs to the fact that they are going to be leaving. Owners should do typical 'getting ready to leave' behaviors like shaking their keys and putting on their jacket throughout the day, when they are not about to leave.
"This will teach the dog not to associate those things with the owners departure. The owner needs to make departures and arrivals very low key. Do not get the dog worked up before leaving and do not greet the dog immediately and excitedly when returning home."
The second part of treatment involves medication.
This includes drugs like Prozac or Xanax, although some owners have found success with over-the-counter herbal calming supplements and/or pheromone collars or sprays, both of which can be purchased at most pet supply stores," Scherr said.
Scherr emphasized that if people think their dog has separation anxiety, they should speak with their vet before starting on any supplement.
"Sometimes, a sudden change in behavior, may indicate that something is physically wrong with their pet," she said. "Always talk to the vet first. I can not stress this enough."