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Similar to humans, dogs also experience fear and anxiety. While fear is a response to an external threat such as an object or a person resulting from previous unpleasant experience, anxiety is an anticipation of an unknown danger in the future that is imagined. Anxiety can affect the physical and mental health of a dog and how it relates to you and the world around it. Here are ways on how to figure out if your dog has anxiety and what to do about it.
What Causes Anxiety in Dogs?
According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, there are several factors that cause anxiety in dogs. The most common ones are:
Anxieties related to fears can be triggered by loud noises, strange objects, strange animals and people, visual stimuli such as umbrellas or hats, strange or new environments, car rides, visit to the vet’s clinic, unknown surfaces such as wooden floors or lawn etc. Although these things seem inconsequential to us, if a dog has had a frightening experience with any of the above, they can become anxious.
2. Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety is often the cause of unruly behaviour in dogs. It affects nearly 14 per cent of dogs. They are normally unable to find comfort on their own when their owners leave them alone or they are separated from their family members. The anxiety causes them to behave in undesirable ways such as urinating or defecating in the house, destroying items in the house or furniture and barking.
3. Age-Related Anxiety
As dogs age, they are affected by problems such as cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). It affects their learning, perception and memory similar to how Alzheimer’s disease affects humans. Their mental decline can cause them anxiety.
Types and Signs of Anxiety in Dogs
Some of the types of anxiety in dogs include:
- Mild Fears: Signs of fear include withdrawal, tail tucked, trembling, reduced activity, hiding or passive escape behaviours.
- Panic: Panicky dogs display active avoidance or escape behaviour and sudden, out-of-context motor activity that is potentially injurious.
Typical signs of sympathetic autonomous nervous system activity are dog anxiety diarrhoea.
Other Signs of Anxiety Include
- Aggression towards people or other animals
- Urinating or defecating inside the house
- Panting or drooling
- Destructive behaviour
- Barking for long periods
- Repetitive or compulsive behaviours
What is Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
Separation anxiety occurs when pet parents or guardians leave their dogs alone while they are away from home. It’s a fairly common problem and often manifests in the dogs becoming destructive at home when the pet parents are away. They chew up the furniture or couch, bark, howl excessively or whine regardless of whether their guardians are gone for 5 hours or 5 minutes. Separation anxiety gets triggered when dogs become upset over the absence of their guardians or the people they are attached to. Some dogs suffering from this condition become agitated with dog anxiety whining when their pet parents prepare to leave. Some become depressed prior to their pet parents leaving and some even try to prevent them from leaving.
There are many causes that lead to separation anxiety, some of them include
- A change of family or guardian. This can happen when they are abandoned or surrendered to a shelter or given to new guardians.
- Moving to a new place such as a new house or a new city can make them anxious.
- A sudden change in the schedule when the dog is left alone for longer periods of time. For example, a guardian who works from home changes job and now has to be out for 8 hours a day.
- The sudden absence of a family member, either due to moving away or death can trigger separation anxiety.
Here are some of the common symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs:
- Urinating and defecating when their guardians aren’t around is common among dogs with separation anxiety. If they do it in front of you, the house soiling is probably not related to separation anxiety.
- Dogs barking and howling when left alone or separated from the guardian is also a sign. It can be confirmed if they howl only when left alone and not by anything else.
- Digging, chewing or destruction in the absence of the guardian can be a sign as well. Dogs often chew windows sills, door frames or dig at doors when they feel separated. They can also destroy household objects and these behaviours often result in self-injury of some kind. Broken teeth, damaged nails, scrapped paws are commonly seen.
- Some dogs try to escape from a place they are confined to when they feel separation anxiety.
- Pacing and trotting along a fixed path or pattern when left alone.
How to Diagnose Anxiety in Dogs?
When you see many of the above behaviours of anxiety in your dog, the veterinarian will first look to rule out other conditions that might be leading to those behaviours such as thyroid or brain disease. Toxic substances such as lead could also be leading them to behave in those ways. These can be ruled out with blood tests.
If the vet diagnoses a simple fear, phobia or anxiety, it can be treated with prescribed medication. The vet might also make recommendations based on the individual dog’s case such as the fear trigger, and behavioural techniques that can alleviate the dog’s anxiety.
How to Calm an Anxious Dog?
Before you start treating your dog for anxiety, you need to understand what is causing them to become anxious. Are they anxious about being left alone? Is it loud noises? Travelling or sudden change in the environment? Different conditions require different approaches. Here are five dog anxiety remedies for the most common anxiety issues.
- Exercise is not only a stress reliever for humans, but also for dogs. There are two things that exercise accomplishes for a dog with anxiety. First, a good workout stimulates the production of serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain that improves their mood and makes them feel confident, just like in humans. Second, exercise is a good release for all that pent up energy that can exacerbate anxiety. A game of fetch, running along with you or a hike up a hill can help them stay well exercised and is one of the best dog anxiety treatments there is.
- When certain situations such as fireworks or thunderstorms or large crowds make dogs nervous, distraction tactics work well on them. By distracting your dog, the focus is shifted from the stressor to something they are familiar with or find comforting. Although it’s not an ideal training situation, giving them a treat for commands like sit, lie down or roll over or their favourite toy will ease their anxiety. Dogs that are highly motivated by food will show the best results with this technique as they begin to associate frightening things with highly valued rewards. This makes their anxiety trigger more tolerable.
- A compression wrap or thundershirts as they are more commonly known are popular among many dog owners. It’s a garment that snugly fits around your dog in a swaddling way to apply a gentle but continuous pressure on the nerves to calm their feelings of anxiety. Some find it very useful while travelling or in the midst of heavy noise to keep their dogs comfortable. Although there isn’t any definitive research to back it, some people swear by it. The compression wrap works on some dogs and others aren’t benefited from it.
- A relaxing massage can work wonders for dogs, just as it does for humans. Massages that use long slow strokes have a soothing effect on the nerves which helps them calm down. A massage technique by Linda Tellington-Jones called TTouch has gained popularity among many pet owners for its benefits. It uses circular massage movements using fingers and hands all over the dog’s body. It is also well documented that massaging dogs have a calming effect on both the dog and the owner.
- The last option that can be tried is dog anxiety supplements available at pet stores. It is better to consult the vet before you pick one up, even the ones with herbal composition.
How to Prevent Anxiety in Dogs?
It’s difficult to predict if your dog can develop anxiety, however, there are ways to ensure that they grow up without developing any anxiety related problems. Here are some of the things you should try.
1. Learn Their Body Language
The first step to tackle this problem is to learn how to read your dog’s body language. Knowing when your dog feels scared or uncomfortable and how it responds to such situations will help you avoid experiences that can be negative to your dog.
2. Socialize Your Dog Properly
A dog that is well socialized is afraid or anxious about fewer things. Introducing them to new people, other dogs, new animals, places and experiences will help them in not developing an exaggerated threat response down the road.
3. Obedience Training
Obedience training in dogs is a great tool for managing or preventing anxiety. It helps to lay the foundation for trust and a healthy relationship. A dog that is well-trained socializes easily and experiences new things without having anxiety.
4. Exercise and Nutrition
Regular exercise is important for the dog’s physical and mental well-being. A dog that is well stimulated through exercise is less likely to pick up undesirable behaviours. Good nutrition is just as critical to support this development so the dog’s physical and mental needs are taken care of. If the dog still develops anxiety, this can help in knowing which area the dog needs to help the most.
5. Situation Avoidance
When your dog is positively diagnosed with anxiety and you know the trigger factors, you can avoid such situations to protect your dog. For example, if your dog gets anxious around other dogs, you should avoid taking them to dog parks. If the situation that triggers anxiety cannot be avoided, you can take precautions such as body harnesses, leashes, basket muzzles etc to prevent dangerous situations such as dog anxiety biting.
Anxiety can be potentially experienced by all dogs. With good training, socialization and calming methods, it is possible to ease their anxiety and improve their condition.