By Caitlin Ultimo
If you’ve ever experienced anxiety, you know that feeling nervous and stressed can become overwhelming, even debilitating, at times. Unfortunately, it’s not unusual for pets to also experience anxiety, and just as with humans, there are varying degrees and manifestations of the emotion. It can be extremely difficult for any pet parent to watch their dog suffer from anxiety. You’d do anything for him, but calming an anxious pet is no easy task and finding an effective treatment typically calls for the help a vet or a certified animal behaviorist.
“Dogs use body language to communicate how they are feeling,” says Ashley Atkinson, CPDT-KA and behavior consultant at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. If your pet seems uneasy or fixated on licking, for example, he could be trying to tell you he feels nervous, stressed or even fearful. “It's important to watch and observe your dog for his or her own ‘communication style’ and determine what signals he or she uses to indicate anxiety.”
The signs of anxiety are vast and may change for your dog over time. “Some symptoms may include pacing, trembling or shaking, hyper-vigilance, lip licking, frequent yawning and decreased appetite,” said Susan Konecny, RN and DVM medical director of Best Friends Animal Society®. “Physiologic effects may include increased salivation or drooling, dilated pupils, increased heart rate and panting, or skin lesions from self trauma or over-grooming.”
If you’ve noticed repetitions of this behavior, your pet may be experiencing anxiety. The first step to help calm your dog begins with attempting to determine what’s causing your dog to feel this way. An evaluation of good physical health by your veterinarian can also help to validate suspicions that a psychological stressor is the culprit.
Causes of Anxiety in Dogs
The causes behind the anxiety your dog is experiencing can be as vast as the signs and symptoms your dog displays to show their anxiousness. Some common causes of anxiety include past abuse, loud noises (like thunder), medical problems or other animals.
“To help a dog who is stressed, it is important to determine the cause of anxiety,” Atkinson said. “Once you know how to recognize your dog's stress signals, like trembling or frequent yawning, you can learn to recognize what might be stressing him.”
Take your pet’s history into account and think about his past. If he is a rescue pet there may be more question marks, so take note when he demonstrates signals of anxiety. Perhaps, say, if he shakes around larger dogs, he could have had a bad experience with a large dog before he made it to you and his forever home.
Separation anxiety is another form of anxiousness that is usually easier to diagnose. Typically, a dog with separation anxiety will act out while you are away, and may chew or dig furniture, howl, pace or go to the bathroom inside the house.
At-Home Tips for Calming Your Dog Down
“Every dog is an individual and not only shows anxiety in his or her own way, but different calming techniques can have varying levels of success depending on the dog,” Atkinson said. Depending on what causes your dog stress, the solution can be as simple as recognizing the stressor and removing it. In other cases, however, you will want to seek out the help of a veterinarian, a qualified behavior consultant or dog trainer who can help determine the root of the anxiety and assist in relieving it, Atkinson said.
Here are a few things you can try to help calm your pet:
- Play music: Atkinson says that playing music specifically developed for pets can sometimes ease anxiety, especially if your dog suffers from separation anxiety and the songs are left playing while you are away.
- Aromatherapy and essential oils: there are some balms and sprays specifically formulated for pets that utilize the calming properties of aromatherapy. Rub the spray or formula in between your hands and pat your palms along your dogs back – just be sure he can’t reach where you applied the pet-safe oils so that he won’t lick anything off. Always follow the label instructions for proper use.
- Physical contact: try petting your dog or sitting near him and check to see if his anxiety symptoms subside. “Physical contact helps both humans and dogs relieve anxiety, fear and stress,” Konecny said.
- Exercise: anxiety can sometimes create uncontrollable energy, Konecny said. We are advised by our doctors to exercise to help relieve stress. This applies to dogs as well.”
- Give them a time out: some dogs get so anxious or wound up that no amount of calming, praising or reward will work to bring them down, not unlike young children. “When this is the case, they need a quiet space with no stimulation where they can turn off all the input and simply unwind,” Konecny said.
- Check your own state of mind: reacting to your dog’s anxiety with nervousness of your own can cause your dog to pick up on your anxiety and heighten the problem further, Konecny said.
Anxiety Medications and Supplements for Dogs
Your veterinarian can suggest and prescribe several anti-anxiety or anti-depression medications, some of which are used in human medicine. These are referred to as psychotrophic drugs and can be successful if utilized in combination with behavior modification training. By combining these drugs with specific training to defuse the stress reaction to the offending situations or sounds, a dog can develop confidence to ignore the stressors and eventually, medication may no longer be needed.
A few dietary supplements, such as the amino acid tryptophan and polyunsaturated fatty acids (especially dexahexanoic acid), play a role in optimal brain function and behavior and may also be recommended by a veterinarian.
Dog appeasing pheromones (chemicals transported in the air that mimic odor molecules which have a mood altering effect) have been known to help ease anxiety in dogs, as the smell is reminiscent of the pheromones mothers give off a few days after giving birth to their puppies. These odor molecules supposedly give puppies a sense of security and, when used as an anxiety reliever, can produce that same sense of calm and safeness. There are collars, sprays, treats, supplements and even diffusers that utilize this form of pheromone therapy.
Looking for options to ease your dog’s anxiety, paying attention to what causes him stress and are seeking professional help is the best path you can follow to calm an anxious dog, Atkinson said. Support your dog through this time, and don’t give up. The solution may not be easy, but with dedication, perseverance and the right professional input, you can help your dog overcome his anxiety symptoms.