PetMassage and The Treatment of Anxiety Separation in Dogs

Full Title: PetMassage and The Treatment of Anxiety Separation in Dogs

Author: Mark Oldstrom

Date of Publication: November 3, 2016


Research Paper Text:

How might Petmassage (PM) be integrated into the treatment of separation anxiety in dogs? Answering this question involves exploring a basic understanding of the automatic nervous system, the nature of canine separation anxiety, and particular techniques of Petmassage. These areas might seem divergent from each other. But remember an adage of John Muir’s: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Petmassage of dogs works well when it serves as one healing modality that integrates itself into other perspectives and modalities of care.

Now a note of caution. Considerable anatomical, neurological, biochemical, and psychological terminology will be used in this article and its references. We are practitioners of a professional discipline of healing, and most of us live in the western culture of clinical science. So do the other professionals and caregivers we interact with. The ability to speak using these terminologies is necessary for our creditability and their understanding Petmassage’s relevancy.

Much of our physical and emotional functioning is automatic, which is true for many species, including dogs. Having a fundamental understanding of how the Autonomic Nervous System, ANS for short, effects animals emotionally and physically is important for anyone practicing Petmassage, PM for short, and for understanding how Petmassage can neurologically affect a dog.

The ANS includes 2 different nervous systems: the Sympathetic Nervous System, SNS for short, and the Parasympathetic Nervous System, PNS for short. At the most fundamental level, the SNS provokes/mobilizes, that is the body essentially speeds up, tenses, and goes on alert. The body goes into “high gear.”
• muscles contract, including the anal sphincter (a location for pheromone release)
• the heart increases its constriction and its rate.
• the bronchial tubes in the lungs dilate to increase oxygenation of the blood for additional energy.
• the adrenal gland releases adrenalin for greater awareness and converts glycogen to glucose for muscle energy

Functions which are not necessary for immediate survival are stopped.
• the kidneys severely decrease the production of urine
• decreases saliva production and stops the stomach’s function

On the other hand, the PNS calms the body.
• The heart rate and degree of constriction decreases
• The muscles relax
• The bronchial tubes in the lungs and the eyes are constricted
• Siliva production increases; the stomach moves and produces digestive secretions
• Urine production increases to eliminate waste products
• The sphincter relaxes, which also increases the release of pheromones

The SNS, the excitatory system, runs along the spine. It is activated when sensory information (afferent) about a change in the environment (what lies outside) the dog is sent cranially to the amygdala in the brain and along the spinal cord. The amygdala, which acts as a type of executive authority to the ANS, interprets the information as a threat/danger, and sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus in the brain. The hypothalamus activates the SNS, which also sends signals to the adrenal glands. These glands respond by pumping the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline) into the bloodstream. Together they keep the animal at a high level of response. This process of activation has been called the Stress Response, the Reflex Arc, and the Fight or Flight Response of the SNS, as well as other terms. For the purpose of this article the more general term of Stress Response will be used because it includes the overall affect on the dog (or other mammals for that matter). Also, The Stress Response, which moves along postganglionic neurons, moves faster than the electrical signals within a computer. Not quite “warp speed”, but close.

Now couple this with the pathway of the SNS neuro-pathways, which run within the spinal cord. Each pathway covers a very short distance as its branches connect to a number of organs. This allows the SNS to effect the multiple changes (described above) simultaneously that give the animal needed resources to fight or flee. To state this more graphically, the SNS effects literally explode from all along the spine.

“Finally, As the initial surge of epinephrine subsides, the hypothalamus activates the second component of the stress response system — known as the HPA axis. This network consists of the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands. The HPA axis relies on a series of hormonal signals to keep the sympathetic nervous system — the “gas pedal” — pressed down. If the brain continues to perceive something as dangerous, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which travels to the pituitary gland, triggering the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This hormone travels to the adrenal glands, prompting them to release cortisol. The body thus stays revved up and on high alert (Harvard Health Publications, “Understanding the Stress Response”, 2016)”.

Conversely the PNS euro-pathways originate mainly in the lower area of the brain, with a long single connection to each organ, with the exception of its connection to the caudal organs of the colon, bladder, rectum, and genitals. The effect of the PNS is individually/independently targeted to each organ. So the PSN affects take a bit longer because the its neurons, which are pre-ganglionic, communicate slower than than the post-ganglionic neurons of the SNS. This understanding of neurology has important implications/suggestions regarding Petmassage techniques discussed later in this paper.

Another important factor to remember is activation of PSN normally follows the SNS activation, reversing the SNS affects, and returning the dog to a normal homeostasis or calm state. Otherwise the dog will remain in a repetitive or continual state of SNS excitement. A condition we humans have defined as the physical/neurological state of PTSD (again, we will return to this later).
An important question to ask is this: can the PNS interrupt, moderate, or even prevent the SNS process? The answer is “yes”. Tthe SNS is controlled from the hypothalmus which is controlled from the amygdala. If the PNS can essentially get to the amgydala first or change the perception of the amygdala from threat to calm, the PNS will not be initiated or it can be moderated. This pre-emption or moderation by the PNS can also be aided by the more executive center of the brain: the cerebral cortex. But that involves another lengthy discussion of neurological processes/connections.

Now turn to “separation anxiety” in dogs, which is a common condition/experience and one that clients often report to Petmassage practitioners. Separation Anxiety is essentially The Stress Response on steroids: a panic attack due to the anxiety and fear of being alone. Anxiety is understood as fear with no object. One feels afraid of a threat, but is not able to identify what the threat is. Fear has an object, because the threat is known/identified. Relating this to the actual experience of a dog, entering a new situation/location, encountering a new person or animal, or revisiting a previous harmful context can raise anxiety in a dog. The dog feels afraid, but cannot identify what it is or what it might be. But the effect is the same: the SNS is activated and begins it process. Unless the dog’s anxiety is moderated or relieved, the SNS continues and the dog enters an increasing Stress Response which usually acts out as the “fight or flight” experience. I use the word “experience” to mean both a physical and emotional dimensions for a dog. To summarize in different words, “fear and anxiety are best friends, and the hormonal and neuro-chemical processes [of SNS] happen when these emotions are triggered and are not under simple mind control by a dog. In other words the dog consciously perceives a threat, unidentified and identified, which initiates a constant Stress Response.

The environmental change which triggers separation anxiety is separation of the caregiver from the dog. The presence, by smell, sight, sound, touch or any combination of the caregiver has become part of the dog’s normal and safe environment. When the caregiver is separated/removed from the dog’s environment, any number of environmental parts might be lost to the dog: safety, food and water, comfort, affection, play, etc. In other words, the quality of her/his life is somehow at risk. Couple this with the dog’s nature of living in the “now” and her/his lack of ability to perceive a “future”, and the severity of separation anxiety in the dog is better understood.

Caregivers cannot explain to the dog that they will be back home, or back to the car, or back to the boarding facility after a certain period of time, if at all. They also cannot explain to the dog that there is nothing to be anxious and/or afraid of; that no harm will come to them while the caregiver is gone; that the elements of their quality of life will be maintained or return; and that they are able to endure the caregiver’s absence. So the panic of the dog’s separation anxiety makes him pee on himself, defecate, howl, bark, destroy things, and even self-mutilate as outward displays of the internal anxiety and fear. Understand these actions as expressions of the separation anxiety stress response..

Three levels of separation anxiety can be identified. The mild form can demonstrate itself with pacing whining, intermittent barking, chewing, and excessive greetings by the dog when the caregiver(s) return. Typically the dog with mild separation anxiety is able to settle back down, often in just a few minutes or less, once the caregiver is present. The moderate form can display anorexia, constant barking, considerable determined destruction at points of entry to where the dog is left, involuntary panting and elimination, sweaty paws, and an extended period excessive greeting before the dog becomes calm. The severe form often brings about self-mutilation (excessive licking leading to dermatitis or chewing on the paws), diarrhea and dehydration, injury incurred during that attempt to escape their confinement/separation, vomiting, and dramatic shedding. One or more of these conditions act-out the dog’s separation anxiety. They are severe because regular absences by the caregiver result in the dog experiencing constant anxiety and a growing inability to relax and be calm. Neurologically the Stress Response repeats over and over again, with adrenaline almost constantly being pumped into the dog by the adrenal glands. Again, a condition of hypersensitivity with the same symptoms as PTSD.

Enter a modality of positive reward training to treat separation anxiety in dogs. The goal of training is for the dog to “learn” that separation does mean there is a threat. A critical method of this learning is desensitization of the dog to separation from the caregiver. The dog learns that periods of separation is a time of calm and enjoyment, which the dog can initiate himself/herself. The process of this “learning” is slow, as small increments of separation are made and the dog is rewarded in various ways for staying calm and focusing on aspects of his/her quality of life environment that continue, despite the absence of the care-taker. This slow learning process and positive reward by providing some aspect(s) of the normal environment essentially keeps the PNS activated, preventing/pre-empting the Stress Response and the SNS activation.

Four points of intervention with Petmassage could be simply employed:
• First, a few minutes of Petmassage prior to beginning a training session for separation anxiety could be used to establish significant calm in the dog.
• Second, because the training tries to avoid activating a Stress Response and the SNS in the dog, a calm dog might have greater resistance to a Stress Response.
• Third, If the dog does begin to appear stressed, a few minutes or even a few moments of Petmassage could help calm the dog.
• Fourth, a moments/minutes of pet massage could be used as one of the rewards in the dog’s training.

Several Petmassage techniques could be used at these points of intervention:
• Calming Touch, especially of the skin, could work as efferent messages to the amygdala, and to the sensory neural pathways to the spinal cord, which contains the main trunk of the SNS pathway.
• Positional Release at the vector points and even the cranium could send positive efferent stimulation to the amygdala. Since the past episodes of the separation anxiety affected mosts every area of the dog’s body, using positional release at multiple areas of the body might (and I emphasize the word “might”) assist the dog’s own processing of past episodes of separation anxiety and its Stress Response. This could contribute to the dog’s process of learning and desensitization.
• Rolling of the spine and other areas of the dog’s body might serve as a reward due to the pleasure it provides.
• Scratching, might provide relief of tension and non-stressful stimulation. Likewise, skin rolling and massage of the gums, ears, and orbits of the eyes might relieve stress/tension and provide soothing touch.
• 2 known areas for calming dogs are the sides of the neck just behind the ears and the region around the eye orbit (lacrimal bone) from the median plane, across the bony prominence of the frontal bone, across the temples (zygomatic bone and temporal bone) to the ears (Kainer, Plate 39, Figure 1 & 2).
• Employing massage at junctures of Ancient Chinese Meridian lines, is another avenue to consider.

There is one other technique/skill that should be integrated in Petmassage’s code of “asking the permission of the dog” to do/begin a massage: a “calming signal”. There are a number of calming signals, as discussed by Turid Rugaas in her book On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals. These signals are a physical posture or movement that is part of a dog’s language, and communicates a communication of calm, which the dog herself can join in. A calming signal replaces the usual leading on a leash by the practitioner, by speaking directly in the dog’s species specific language.
Which of these techniques and others to use will be informed by the conversation between the dog and the Petmassage practitioner.

Certainly a Petmassage practitioner is not responsible for interpreting any symptoms of separation anxiety. That should be left to an animal behaviorist, veterinarian, or professional dog trainer experienced in recognizing separation anxiety. Working with a trainer, who is treating separation anxiety, would be the best practice. How effectively Petmassage can be integrated into treating separation anxiety is an area worth exploring. The motivation to initiate that collaboration probably must come from Petmassage practitioners. Understanding the neurological process of separation anxiety, its emotional/physical pain and resultant behaviors, and the characteristics of and approaches to its treatment, should energize our motivation to step forward.

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