Small animal - July 2020

Hedgehogs – a practical approach to common presentations

Aoife Hand MVB O’Malley Veterinary Hospital, Bray, aims to equip general practitioners with the tools to appropriately triage and treat hedgehogs without compromising their welfare

It is almost impossible to overstate the magnitude of change in life in the last six months. With so many people transferring work from office to home, the norm of work-day solitude for dogs was replaced with continuous company, owner attention and exercise. This heightened level of interaction is likely to have strengthened the human-animal bond, potentially creating deep attachment. For many, the extended time at home presented the opportunity to introduce a new pet, precipitating a surge in adoptions and purchases of pups. For such young pups, constant companionship may now be their only lived experience. As the world re-opens however and homes are set to be vacant for extended periods, pets will need to learn (or relearn) to cope with extended periods alone. 
It is reasonable to assume that the shift from full-time companionship to extended periods of separation from the owner will impact every dog to some extent. The innate ability of an animal, external factors, past experiences and the presence or absence of other companion animals will variably influence the capacity of an individual to cope with the new isolation experience. This manifests in a spectrum of expressed behaviours, from apparently passive acceptance on one end, to extreme negative and even destructive behaviour patterns as is associated with separation anxiety (SA) on the other. In 2018, 9,961 dogs were surrendered to an Irish local authority shelter, of which 778 were euthanised.2 The surge in dog purchases and adoptions during lockdown has prompted significant concern among animal healthcare professionals who anticipate that, on return to work, many may find that dog ownership is unsustainable. This may be due to competing commitments such as work hours but additionally, a surge in unmanageable SA behaviour3 precipitating surrender to animal shelters is being predicted. Indeed, in previous studies behavioural issues have been reported to be the most common cause for relinquishing dogs.4,5

What is separation anxiety?
SA is generally defined as ‘a distress response that an animal performs when separated from individuals to whom it is attached’.6 The typical manifestations of SA may include excessive vocalisation, environment destruction, house soiling, hypersalivation, aggression or depression.7 Some behaviourists describe ‘hyper-attachment’ as intrinsic to SA which may be either primary (inherent) or secondary to a disruptive episode. Signs of hyper-attachment include relentlessly following the owner or attempting to maintain persistent physical contact with them.8 Notably, other authors observe that hyper-attachment may be present even in the absence of SA.9 Anecdotally, it may be suspected that certain breeds are more susceptible to SA but this is not unequivocally demonstrated in literature. Many (but not all) researchers found that mixed breeds are over-represented.7,10 The reasons for this are not clear. Explanations suggested include the confounding effect of mixed breed dogs being more likely to have originated at an animal shelter, or that they may be inherently more resistant to behaviour modification.11 Some authors have observed that male dogs are over represented11,12 although again, this is not a universal finding.13 

When attempting to diagnose SA in the clinical setting, a comprehensive history and clinical examination are paramount to differentiate between SA, other behavioural disorders or a medical aetiology. Elderly animals may display the classic signs of SA for a variety of non-behavioural reasons such as orthopaedic pain or age-related cognitive decline. Medical causes should also be carefully ruled out in younger animals, but it is worth remembering that house soiling and chewing objects may simply be due to incomplete basic training. Exploring the pattern of  behaviour (frequency, timing, etc.) and how the pet responds to other noise stimuli such as the postman, a door slam, etc. may help differentiate SA from a phobic response resulting from exposure to stimuli experienced in the owner’s absence.14 Often with true SA, the negative behaviour commences shortly after the owner has left whereas phobia-related behaviours may not commence until exposure to (or anticipation of) the offending stimulus. The use of a video recording of the dog in the owner’s absence may be helpful in making the distinction.15

Determining the duration and severity of SA behaviours, identifying contributing stimuli and phobias, and considering the capability of the owner to execute recommendations will ultimately dictate the therapeutic strategy selected. Typically, the mainstay of rehabilitation combines elements of environmental and lifestyle management and behaviour modification together with the assistance of pheromone therapy and possibly medication. Many animals will benefit from exercise and play, hence where appropriate, this may be recommended to help reduce anxiety.16  Resources such as ‘doggy day care’ or ‘pet sitters’ when available, may obviate the pet spending lengthy periods at home alone. The use of dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) administered by either a room-diffuser or in an impregnated collar has been scientifically shown to be a useful treatment tool, particularly when combined with therapeutic behaviour modification. One study compared the effect of the tricyclic antidepressant, clomipramine with DAP in managing dogs with SA and found the DAP to be at least as effective but with fewer side effects. In fact, when used in conjunction with behavioural therapy, 83% of the DAP group reported reduced or eliminated behavioural issues versus 70% of the clomipramine group, although the group sizes were small.13
Ongoing research in veterinary behavioural medicine continues to search for insight into the subtle cues and communications of non-verbal species to inform best practice behaviour modification techniques and strategies. Where SA is diagnosed, practitioners will prescribe a customised action to be taken by the owner aimed at mitigating the triggers for the behaviour and lessening the hyper-attachment. Examples of such include adjusting the (owner’s) departure routine (eg. packing the car the night before, putting keys in a pocket to eliminate key-noise), changing the owner-dog relationship by increasing task-reward exercises17  or diminishing the excitement when the owner returns, by ignoring the dog until the dog is calm.6 Systematic desensitisation and counterconditioning is a technique whereby the dog learns to accept the anxiogenic ‘insult’ (such as owner departure) and learn to form a positive association with an alternate stimulus (such as receiving a chew toy) which coincides with the original insult.6 Methods such as these may be especially useful where the SA is found to be associated with phobias such as noise phobias.18 There are very few medications available in Ireland licenced to treat SA but veterinary formulations of clomipramine and fluoxetine are available in other countries. The licenced indications for selegiline include treatment of behavioural disorder of emotional origin, which may include SA. Research into novel therapies such as the neuromodulator oxytocin19 or the use of wearable technology20 is ongoing.

Forecasting the living landscape for the future remains an impossible task so it is vital to invest time in informing and preparing ourselves for a multitude of potential scenarios. In the veterinary profession we have a responsibility to take every opportunity to coach owners and equip them with the skills and tools to navigate the return to work. This will help to avoid any unwanted behaviours which would compromise both the welfare of the pet and the owner-pet dynamic.

View References
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