Managing Anxiety in Dogs
Written by Small Door's medical experts
Anxiety is a very real, common emotion that dogs experience. While it’s difficult to see our furry friends exhibit distress, these feelings are normal responses to the triggers that cause them in the first place. Read on for common sources of anxiety in dogs, and different ways to manage those emotions.
Understanding the Difference Between Anxiety and Fear
“Anxiety” and “fear” are often used interchangeably, but there’s a slight difference between being “anxious” and being “fearful.”
When a dog is anxious, they are anticipating a future event. But while humans can become anxious over an upcoming event well in advance of it actually happening, dogs feel anxiety as a response to an imminent threat or scary situation. A classic example of this is separation anxiety. Dogs can become attuned to their owner’s pre-departure cues (such as putting on shoes and picking up the keys) even before they have physically left the house.
When a dog is fearful, they are actively responding to a particular event or stimulus. Unlike anxiety, the feeling of fear doesn’t usually happen until the moment the stimulus is presented, or the moment the event actually happens. Two examples of fear-creating situations are loud, sudden noises, and contact with an unfamiliar person or animal that is perceived as a threat.
When confronted with a fearful situation, the ‘freeze, fight, or flight’ response is put into motion. The response varies depending on the dog. Some dogs become paralyzed with fear, unable to do anything, while others may try to defend themselves or look for a way to escape. Whichever response they exhibit, this type of behavior stems from survival instincts.
Common Causes of Dog Anxiety
While there are many causes for anxiety in dogs, the following three are the most commonly diagnosed.
Separation Anxiety: According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, it is estimated that 14% of dogs suffer from separation anxiety, or an inability to find comfort when separated from family members. Separation anxiety occurs when a dog develops a fear of being left alone for a period of time.
Dogs often develop this type of anxiety when they are puppies, during their senior years, or after a big change (such as moving house, changes in routine, or introducing new family members or pets). Dogs recently adopted from shelters may also develop separation anxiety (although paradoxically, the separation anxiety tends to develop 1-2 months after being brought home).
Dogs with separation anxiety will often engage in destructive behavior, especially close to the exit area and towards their owner’s belongings. Other behaviors include house soiling, pacing, restlessness, inability to settle down, vocalization, and salivation. These behaviors will likely begin whilst the owner is getting ready to leave or within the first 15-30 minutes after the dog is left alone.
A good way to see exactly what happens when you leave is through a video recording or live camera placed where your dog typically hangs out when you’re not home. This is an invaluable tool that can help you visualize the behavior and determine whether there are other concurrent signs of anxiety.
Age-Related Anxiety: The aging process is associated with progressive and irreversible changes in body systems that can affect behavior. Aging dogs can exhibit a decline in cognitive function, which includes memory function, learning, perception, and awareness. In addition, anxiety, agitation, and altered responses to stimuli have been frequently reported.
Fear-Related Anxiety: This type of anxiety is often brought on by triggers such as loud noises, unfamiliar people and/or other animals, visual stimuli, and strange or new environments, such as the vet’s office or even a ride in the car.
How Will I Know If My Dog Has Anxiety? What are the symptoms?
It is not always easy to separate anxiety symptoms from regular everyday behavior, depending on your dog’s personality, but you should be on the lookout. Some of the symptoms may be occasional, while others are recurrent and therefore part of a more serious issue. Monitor your dog’s behavior and be proactive should any of the following occur:
Soiling in the home
Panting / drooling / shaking
Excessive barking / whining
Pacing / restlessness
Repetitive or compulsive behaviors
Trembling / hiding
Excessive licking or chewing
If any of these signs present themselves and you suspect your dog is suffering from anxiety, talk to your veterinarian.
The best approach to managing anxiety combines behavioral modification, changes to your pet’s environment, natural therapies, and medication if required.
Diagnosing Anxiety in Dogs
The best way to accurately diagnose anxiety in dogs is with professional help. Your vet will conduct a complete and thorough examination, along with possible blood tests to rule out other health conditions that could also be causing the behavior, such as brain, thyroid, or adrenal disease.
The most helpful thing you can do is provide your vet with as much information as possible when it comes to the behavioral changes and symptoms you’ve noticed. This will allow your vet to help narrow down the actual trigger for your dog’s anxiety. Once the source has been identified, your vet can recommend ways to avoid those triggers or devise a specific treatment plan if the issue is more serious.
How to Manage and Treat Your Dog’s Anxiety
After the diagnosis, it’s time to figure out how to help your dog live a normal, healthy life!
Training techniques such as desensitization and counterconditioning are two strategies that can treat anxiety and fear.
Desensitization is accomplished through repeated, controlled exposure to your dog’s specific fear or anxiety stimulus. If the stimulus is given in small doses and at a low intensity, your dog will hopefully not respond with fear or anxiety. Repeated exposure, accompanied by rewards for positive behavior, can be extremely helpful in the long-term management of anxiety.
One example is fireworks. If your dog struggles with a firework phobia, play quiet firework sounds when you’re home with your pet and they’re in a calm state. Doing this repeatedly, while slowly increasing the volume over time, can help them to become more accustomed to the noise, so they don’t become anxious when they hear real fireworks.
Parents-to-be can take a similar approach when preparing their dog for the arrival of a new baby. By playing baby noises in the background while you’re at home with your pet, they can get used to the new sound before the baby arrives. Check out our article on preparing your pet for a new baby for more tips.
With counterconditioning, you train your dog to change their response to the anxiety or fear stimulus. Through positive behavior reinforcement, you can replace anxious or aggressive behavior with a more desirable one.
For example, teach your dog to sit or stay, and reward them with a treat when they obey. Then, whenever your dog is fearful or anxious, you can redirect their attention towards you by asking them to perform one of the learned commands.
For both forms of training, you may want to enlist a dog trainer. Training takes time and isn’t always easy with an anxious dog.
For particularly severe anxiety or issues that are not resolving, speak to your veterinarian. They can organize a referral to a board certified veterinary behaviorist (a vet who has undergone additional years of training specifically focused on behavioral issues, and must undertake regular board examinations to retain their certification).
Alternative therapies, environmental changes, calming aids and anti-anxiety medication
At Small Door, we support a multi-modal approach to anxiety that combines behavioral modification, changes to your pet’s environment, natural therapies, and medication if required.
In addition to the training methods described above, we recommend considering how you can make changes to your dog’s environment to make them feel more comfortable. Almost all pets will benefit from having a dedicated ‘safe space’ that can retreat to when they feel anxious. This may be a kennel or crate with a comfy bed, or in the specific case of firework anxiety, we recommend preparing a place for them (with a cozy bed and favorite toy) in a windowless, interior room such as a bathroom. This way, your pet is as far away from the noise and vibrations of the fireworks as possible. You might also try playing quiet, classical music in the background, as this has been scientifically proven to have a calming effect on dogs.
Natural therapies and products can also help with anxiety, including calming aids like pheromone collars (Adaptil) or products like the Anxiety Wrap or Thunder Shirts. These products may work alone, while other dogs may benefit from them used in conjunction with other tactics.
Some dog owners have used CBD oil to treat anxiety and have found it to be a successful option. However, it’s worth noting that there is currently no scientific research on the effectiveness of CBD to treat anxiety, and CBD products are not yet regulated. If you want to try giving CBD products to your dog, speak with your vet first, and ensure you buy from a reputable brand.
Depending on the severity of your pet’s anxiety, your vet may prescribe anti-anxiety medication. Anti-anxiety medications work best when used in conjunction with (not as a replacement for) the techniques discussed above.
In addition to training and use of specialized products, it’s important for you to give your dog as much love and attention as possible. Exercise is another important factor; daily walks and play time will help keep your dog calm and in a happy state of mind.
If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, make sure they’re never left alone for long periods of time, particularly during the training process. Consider enlisting the help of a dog walker; asking a friend or family member to visit your dog; or even enrolling them in a doggie daycare where they’ll get plenty of attention.
Anxiety and fear are natural responses to certain triggers, but they can become debilitating for some dogs. Make sure you know the signs of an anxiety problem and try to identify your dog’s triggers; this will help you to work closely with your vet (and if necessary, a trainer) to keep your dog calm and happy.