In our weekly Ask A Vet series, Pawp interviews Dr. Laura Robinson on Instagram Live about separation anxiety, puppy diets, raw food hype, and more. The questions we asked came from the Facebook group Pets Health In Quarantine. If you’d like a vet to answer your questions, join the group and post. This interview has been transcribed and edited for length and clarity.
If I knew how they really felt, I would be a millionaire. I wish they could tell me, that would make my job a lot easier. I think they do have a lot of similar emotions we do. I do definitely believe they can feel very anxious. They can definitely feel happy, they can feel depressed, all those types of things. Separation anxiety is definitely real; anxiety, in general, is real. My dog has an intense noise phobia with fireworks and stuff. So I’ve had to deal with things like that with my own dog, and you do just feel really bad for them and it is such a frustrating thing to deal with. A lot of times, what works for one dog or cat might not work for another one. It’s a case-by-case basis, but there are some general rules that can help.
Quarantine can be a precipitating factor. Outside of quarantine, something like moving to a new home, the loss of another pet in the house, if their owner passes away, or prolonged separation from their owner… the dog can have anxiety whenever they leave, anticipating they may not come back.
That said, a lot of people can misinterpret anxiety with boredom. So anxiety differs in that anxiety will only be brought on when you’re gone. So if the dog is only doing things when you’re gone, it’s probably separation anxiety. If they’re still doing those things, like destroying your house, chewing up things, or scratching at your door when you’re home too, it’s just boredom. It’s a breed by breed thing, especially high-energy breeds. It’s definitely a realistic fear to have during this time, but I wouldn’t be overly fearful right now. Not every dog is going to develop separation anxiety with all this going on.
The signs of separation anxiety can be defecating or urinating in the house, they can become destructive, you know, destroying things like your door. They can start howling or vocalizing loudly, my own dog has done that before. My neighbors say she howls when I leave, but I’ve never heard her howl when I’m home, so that’s an example. Sometimes they pant or drool. Cats can over-groom themselves, so they’ll basically have a little patch of hair missing from them just continually grooming themselves, it’s an appeasement thing. Sometimes they’ll pace back and forth around your house.
Ways to avoid those are definitely appropriate exercise, taking them on walks and runs, you know, playtime, that type of thing. I know that’s a little hard right now, but just little walks in places where people aren’t will help. There are also types of toys that can keep them really distracted and into what they’re doing. The company Kong has really good ones that you can actually put little treats inside them and it’s almost like a puzzle for them to try and figure out how to get them out. Those can be really great to keep them busy while you’re gone.
It’s not always black and white, but in general, separation anxiety will only occur when you’re not home, so when you’re gone. Boredom can occur when you’re home or not home.
Yes. Dogs owned by a single owner often develop anxiety more than those owned by a family. Obviously, you’re super bonded to each other if it’s just you two living together every single day. Those dogs are definitely two to three times more likely to develop it. Dogs in multiple pet households don’t develop it more or less, it’s more so based on how many owners they have.
Senior dogs tend to develop separation anxiety more frequently because of general cognitive decline as they get older. And definitely certain breeds: German shepherds, Australian shepherds, labs, border collies, cocker spaniels, bichons, greyhounds, havanese, basset hounds, toy poodles. Those are the main ones that come to mind.
Step 1: Discourage this hyper-attachment. It can be difficult in quarantine. In general though, to discourage this, when you get home and they’re super excited to see you, jumping around, asking for attention. If you’re able to resist not rewarding them a ton when you first step in the door, being aloof when you get home, letting them calm down on their own without you all in their face getting excited. I know you’re excited to see them too, so I realize that’s easier said than done. But it’s better to ignore them, let them calm down on their own, and then you be the initiator of contact. That means they shouldn’t be coming to you to initiate attention. When they’ve calmed down, you can give them a reward and attention. It should be on your terms basically.
Step 2: Relax them during the separation. Creating a positive enrichment environment, giving them a special toy when you leave that they really like, a special treat they really like… and you’re only giving them these things when you’re leaving. So they’re excited to get them, they don’t get them at any time, they get really excited. There’s also something called Adaptil, it’s actually an appeasement hormone that’s released by dog moms to basically help their puppies go to sleep. They’ve taken this pheromone and put it in a plug-in diffuser version (there’s one for cats too). Leaving the TV or radio on actually will help too, classical music.
Step 3: Desensitize the separation. So dogs learn cues when we’re leaving: when we grab our keys, put on our shoes, grab our jacket out of the closet. Try to un-couple these things from separation, maybe get up a few times when you’re home, grab your keys and go into your hallway and stand there for a couple of minutes, put on your shoes and leave them on a few minutes. Do these things until they become meaningless to your pet so that way they don’t associate it with leaving. They don’t know if you’ll be gone 10 minutes, two hours, it doesn’t really click with them how long. When you’re leaving, they have no idea how long or if you’re even going to come back. So the more you can have them not associate something like grabbing your keys with you leaving will help a lot.
The minimum should be 30 minutes a day. I say 30-60 minutes is probably a general rule for most breeds and ages. That being said, puppies generally need a lot more exercise than others. High-energy dogs. like greyhounds, German shepherds, English springer spaniels, labs, and huskies come to mind. These are different types of breeds that were bred for certain purposes and thus have a lot of energy. They may require more.
The general rule for that is when they’re considered sexually mature. So that is usually between eight months to one year. If it’s a small breed dog, usually eight or nine months is sufficient. They’re usually, for the most part, done growing by then. But if you’re talking about something like a great dane, or giant breed dogs like St. Bernards, who are growing a bit longer, it’s going to be closer to over a year even a year and a half.
In general, make sure you’re feeding them puppy food; it’s on the label. Sometimes food companies have small breed puppy food vs. large breed puppy food, choose the one that applies. How they get the “puppy food” label is that there are certain formulations of certain nutrients to help them with their growth. Calcium to phosphorous ratios is a big one, so that’s one of the examples. They’re basically just formulated so your dog will grow appropriately. I really like Royal Canin’s puppy food, that’s probably my most recommended; I’ve seen dogs do really well on that and heard really good results from owners. Any company can be good, just make sure it’s puppy food.
There actually is a government association, AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials), that regulates dog food and develops these quality standards and certain regulations and laws that dog foods have to live up to. They control what’s in them, make sure they’re legit, and all that. So they will have an AAFCO statement on the bag, so if it has that on the bag, you know that they have been well-researched and it’s OK to feed to your dog. They’ll put their seal of approval on these bags and that’s something to look out for.
So I get this question every single day. There’s so much stuff out there, it’s sad because people go to pet stores and ask them for their advice on what to feed, what the best pet food is, etc. and a lot of these people don’t have a lot of training behind the things they’re suggesting. And it’s sad because those are the people that pet owners are relying on to give them advice, to know what they’re doing. Sadly a lot of them don’t have a lot of training, so I’ll say, consult with your veterinarian about the food choice for your individual dog.
There has been a study to come out recently comparing kibble to raw dog food and just the nutrient availability, the safeties, precautions, and things like that. And they really have found no benefit to the dog from feeding them raw food diet vs. kibble. All the nutrients are still equally available, everything like that. I think advertising has taken over, you know: “Oh you should feed your German shepherd like a wolf” so people think, based on that, that raw food would be best.
But you know, you could think about yourself, all the issues with storing meat — like our deli meat, our turkey, our chicken. You know you can’t leave your fish in the refrigerator too long. A lot of those bacteria can also affect dogs and cats. Even if the raw food company is a legit one (which I think a lot are) and go through the proper storage and handling of their foods, they can’t guarantee once that food leaves their facility, what the temperature of food in the truck is, the temperatures in the stores, how long they’re not being refrigerated, that type of thing. So all during this time, bacteria can grow.
One of the big issues we see is with Salmonella. Now a lot of dogs won’t be sick from Salmonella, but when we are cleaning up after them, cleaning their bowls, we’re touching them, they’re licking us, cleaning up after them, everything like that, Salmonella can be transmitted to you, especially if you have younger kids. All of these things can be transferred to you when you’re handling this meat so they cause a lot of issues for people too.
I’ve seen a lot of dogs on raw food diets have chronic diarrhea issues and we’ll test them. We do this bacteria panel and it tests for a lot of different bacteria and viruses, and I’ve seen a lot of random ones that they come up positive for things I don’t see in dogs that are fed other foods. That being said, I have seen a couple of dogs do really great on raw foods, but for the majority, I’ve seen more issues than benefits. So just tread very carefully with that.
I really like Royal Canin. I was their representative in school so I’ve actually visited their facilities where they make all their food and seen how everything is processed. There’s so much research behind everything they do. The same goes for Science Diet and Purina Pro Plan. All three of those companies have veterinary nutritionists that they hire that make sure all their food is formulated correctly, the balance of all the nutrients is there. Those are my three favorite kibble dog food.
If you’re anti-kibble and want to do something fresh, I really like Just Food For Dogs and the Farmer’s Dog, both of those are backed by veterinarians, they’ve both consulted with veterinary nutritionists to make sure their food is formulated correctly and has the right balance of everything. It’s fresh food, but it’s all cooked. That can get a little pricy, but it’s a good option if you want to feed a home-cooked diet but don’t want to do a ton of research yourself.
I do see a lot of people who want to do a home-cooked diet who think they’re doing the right thing by feeding different things like meat. They’re like “oh I’m feeding him turkey and putting a couple of veggies in there,” but over time, you’re going to develop different micronutrient deficiencies if you’re just feeding them this diet you came up with in your head.
Make sure you’re doing a lot of research if you’re making your own food, you can’t just throw meat in a bowl and think that’s a balanced diet for them. There’s a website called balanceit.com where you can go and make your own recipes. So you can pick your carb source, your protein source, input all your stuff, and it will tell you where the deficiencies in your diet are and you can move everything around and make it yourself.
I still would tread carefully when it comes to the raw food. Even a little bit of it can have negative side effects. If you want to mix fresh food with kibble, I think that would be totally fine, just to give your dog more variety.
I would try not to switch between different companies too frequently because you want your dog to develop a healthy gut microbiome, so all the bacteria balance is there. So if you’re continuously switching foods all around all the time, it can mess that up and they can have a lot of GI issues. I would try to stick with one if you find one that your dog likes, it’s better to not switch it up as they have more sensitive stomachs than we do.
And when you do switch foods, you need to do it over three weeks. So for the first week, you do a quarter of the new and three quarters of the old; for the second, you do half and half; for the third, you do a quarter of the old and three-quarters of the new. You’re doing it slowly so their stomachs can adjust and you’re not going to deal with diarrhea, which I see a lot.
Yes, yes, yes feed your dog grain! That may be anti what you would think, again, it’s the advertising world taking over, making you think your dog evolved from a wolf so they wouldn’t eat grain in the real world. But dogs have evolved, just like we’ve evolved, and they’ve developed GI systems that can handle grain and they do perfectly fine on it. They’ve actually come out with a study recently and they’ve associated these grain-free diets with a cardiac disease called Dilated Cardiomyopathy.
Dobermans and golden retrievers are the main dogs that would normally get this disease, it’s a genetic disease. But, recently, they’ve seen an increase in this disease in dogs and they’ve started looking into it as it was appearing in breeds that normally don’t have it. So the FDA started looking into it and they’ve found these grain-free diets are directly related to it. So the grains have been giving our dogs different balances of amino acids and by taking the grain out, you’re missing some of those now in the diet. They think it’s a lack of taurine.
Certain dogs are allergic to grains and that’s one thing, but for the most part, the main allergies we see in dogs are to protein, not to the grain. So just be careful. And if you’re super anti-grain, make sure you’re using a company that is aware of the study and is adding the taurine back into it.
I would avoid it, I know it’s hard. They’re cute when they come sit next to you with their puppy dog eyes, but it can create bad habits: if they know they’re going to get something from their plate, they may stop eating their own food. So you have to start adding wet food and different things to entice them.
Secondly, it can cause different medical issues. I’m thinking of pancreatitis from dogs getting into the trash or eating what we eat. Especially high-fat foods, like bacon, things that are cooked in a lot of grease, it can make their pancreas get super inflamed and cause them to start vomiting and have issues. It can be fatal if it gets really bad, oftentimes we do have to hospitalize them for that.
Little pieces of a lean protein source, if you really want to, here and there are OK, like chicken that hasn’t been cooked in a lot of oil or is baked, that’s probably fine.
Puppies hiccup a lot more than older dogs; it’s not a medical concern, they’re usually going to grow out of it. Oftentimes, they get hiccups because they tend to swallow a lot more air when they’re eating or drinking. So sometimes it’s when they’re eating or right in the morning when they’re hungry and haven’t been fed yet. Usually, they will grow out of it. Sometimes if you lay them on their back and roll them gently back and forth it can relieve them a little bit — or distract them! I wouldn’t be too concerned.
No there’s still no proof they can get it or transfer to us. There have been a couple of dogs and cats displaying the virus in their nasal cavities, but who aren’t showing signs of infection. So really they just got into a host they shouldn’t be in. There was one cat who developed respiratory symptoms. So there is proof we can give it to them, but no proof they can harbor it or transfer to us.
Ear infections are really common, especially in dogs that are prone to allergies. I think the main breeds are labs, cocker spaniels, basset hounds, or anything with longer ears that will trap all the bacteria in there. Sometimes they can get ear infections because of an underlying allergy, so if they’re potentially allergic to something in the air or in their food, that can precipitate them getting ear infections, the same way it would a skin infection.
Potentially, trying a food trial with a new type of food that’s for allergies will sometimes limit that. Also always making sure any time you give them a bath or they come into contact with water, getting them an ear cleaner that has a drying component in it. A lot of the times it’s after being groomed. Always clean their ears out after they come into contact with water. If your dog is predisposed to getting them, try and clean their ears once a week in general. I would Google or YouTube “how to clean your dog’s ears.”
A lot of times when they’re having bad ear infections and you can smell it or when you lift up their ears it’s red and there are tons of discharge, there’s not a lot you can do at home. You need to get drops from your vet or even oral antibiotics — a steroid injection even. What you can do at home is really preventative, if it gets worse, see your vet.