If you’re just joining us, here’s some history (full(er) history here). Galen has separation anxiety. We’ve had ups and downs and a lot of flat. After I moved to Dallas for job training in May, I tried the adaptil collar and had great success; in six months he became basically normal. When he knew it was time for me to go to work, he would beat me to the crate and wait for his treat. I could put in his kong filled with good stuff and just leave. He would clear the kong, and then go to sleep or watch the squirrels in the tree outside the window.
Then I moved again. The day I signed my lease I had an interview and didn’t have time to properly transition Galen the way I had when I moved to Dallas. His SA regressed to where it was a year before the move. This time, he became more stressed before I left and more clingy during the workweek just before the time I would normally put him in his crate.
Fast forward to three months after the move. I had tried everything that worked to any degree in the past and some things that didn’t- valerian (started making things worse), L-theanine (even got the Suntheanine brand), Rescue Remedy (didn’t work before, didn’t work this time), aromatherapy and essential oils (same story), liquid with valerian, lemon balm, etc (seemed to help when I went home for Christmas, did not help when I got back), and the adaptil collar (worked amazingly before but, alas, not this time).
I also tried some new things- melatonin, which seemed to lessen the panic after I left, but made no difference with the panting, whining, and shaking before I left; adaptogens (they helped me when I was having anxiety about going to work in grad school, did not help Galen); and Compsure chews (even triple the dose had no effect on either before- or after-leaving anxiety levels). As a last-ditch I tried diphenhydramine (aka Benadryl/zzzquil/Dramamine). A double-dose didn’t touch his pre-departure anxiety, but he totally crashed after the normal 20-30 minutes post-departure. Also, according to the literature, the sedative effects also wear off after a couple days of repeated use (at least in people).
I think some of my reasons for avoiding drugs are similar to most people’s and other reasons are probably less common (or less commonly reported). First, there’s the stigma about drugs that treat mental health issues. As a scientist I get that drug therapy helps the brain get its business together when other therapies can’t (therefore allowing the patient to receive the benefit of those other therapies), but when the issue became personal I realized I hold that stigma. I’m a fan of supplements, they’ve helped me with various things both physical and psychological, and I find myself in the “try everything before drugs” camp despite some indications that I could save time and pain by walking out of that camp sooner. I’m not worried about him being a zombie or losing personality, which seems to be a reason a lot of people avoid drug therapy. Since most all anxiolytics are processed through the liver, I did have some concern about potential liver/kidney issues. Those are generally seen with higher doses over long periods, and if behavior modification is in place drugs shouldn’t be a long-term solution. The primary goal is to take away the panic to the extent that the dog can actually absorb the desensitization and experience the nerve-wracking event in a calmer state.
The other component to my resisting pharmaceuticals was based out of stubbornness and other silly human things (notice how none of this is about the dog). Being my mother’s daughter, my fiercely independent self was convinced I could do this without outside help aside from books and things I could order with free 2-day shipping. (Yeah, I’m working on that asking for help thing.) Another side to that is I felt like if I couldn’t in fact go it alone, that I had failed myself and Galen. Seeing that in black and white, it’s absolutely ridiculous, but it’s amazing the tall tales we can make ourselves believe. Really, I fail him when I allow my insecurities and issues to prevent him from getting better.
The shift came for me in mid-March, after Galen had a few escape attempts of varying intensity (anywhere from a paw on the crate door to the full-on nose-pushing, bar-biting episode posted on my instagram account- that’s @flapjack816 if you aren’t already following). He hadn’t done that since I can’t remember when. At that point, it was clear that I had to get over myself, be a leader, and do what my buddy needs to live without the inescapable discomfort that is anxiety.
So I talked to Galen’s doc (who also happens to be my mom) and opted for Clomicalm (aka clomipramide/Anafranil) with alprazolam (xanax) to help while that takes effect (it usually takes 4-6 weeks for that class of drug, tricyclic anti-depressants, to build up and start working). So far I’m just figuring out the proper dosage for alprazolam, so he’s affected but not stumbling, and making sure he doesn’t have a paradoxical reaction.
So far (over 3 doses) I’ve noticed that he doesn’t keep track of me nearly as much, and when he does it’s much less worried. He also goes through the process of calming down faster, both from excitement (before going outside) and anxiety (when I prepare to leave, or when he has to sit still in public). The first time I left I had all day, so I left the crate open while I took a nap on the bed (which is right in front of the crate) to see how long it would take for him to reach a level 1-2 of 10 (eyes closed, laying comfortably). It was 45 minutes, which sounds like a long time, but previously it would take that long for him to get to a level 5 or 7. That was the first day in the past week that he didn’t even think about pushing at the crate door. The next day it took 25 minutes. The next time I left, there was no panting before departure, still no pushing at the gate, but he was more vocal while I was gone. So there will still be challenging days, but I’m encouraged by the absence of panic.
The difference already is nice, but it will still take a lot of time and patience on my part to make further progress. But every time he is exposed to the things that worry him and is able to reach total calm it will get easier and easier. If you’re struggling with SA or other anxiety-driven issues, I would encourage you to talk to your vet about adding medication. If you’re lucky, you may even have a veterinary behaviorist in your area that can formulate a plan for behavior modification and medication/supplements. For more information check out the links section.